Julia V. Mitelman ’13 had her first encounter with computer science at Harvard watching David J. Malan ’99 rip a phonebook in half. He was explaining binary search before a packed audience in Sanders Theatre.
“I knew right away that I had to take the course,” says Mitelman, who has since decided to declare computer science as a secondary field.
Though only 10 to 15 percent of total enrollees are actual CS concentrators, Computer Science 50 has become an increasingly popular course at Harvard, with more than 525 students enrolled in the class last fall.
“Students are drawn to CS for all sorts of reasons,” writes Malan, instructor of the popular programming course, in an email. “Some want to program, some want to build things, some want to start companies, and some simply want to understand the increasingly technological world around them.”
Students and professors alike say that the image of the computer scientist has changed along with the growing popularity of the field.
“There is this general sense that [CS] is not a private club for super-geeks,” says former Harvard Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, who has taught computer science at Harvard since 1974.
A REVOLUTIONARY COURSE
While the popularity of successful web startups such as Facebook and Google have piqued a general interest in CS, students and faculty members say that it is the introductory programming course, CS50, that has kept students excited about CS at Harvard.
“At Harvard, the person who gets the credit is David Malan,” Computer Science Professor Margo I. Seltzer ’83 says. “He turned CS50 into a class with a real community.”
According to Seltzer, “getting people in the door” has been the biggest hurdle to promoting student interest in CS. In recent years, Malan says, he has worked hard to dispel misconceived stereotypes and a general fear of quantitative subjects like coding—turning to theatrics like ripping the phonebook to encourage students to stick with the course.
“An overarching goal of CS50 is to get students excited about a field that, for most of them, is entirely new,” Malan writes in an email.
Malan says he believes his course creates an atmosphere in which students can “feel comfortable stepping into the classroom” and “feel part of something special”—particularly for those learning programming for the first time. Students say that the unique “CS50 culture,” together with the collaborative environment, contributes to the special learning experience that the course strives to deliver.
The growth of CS50 reflects the success of Harvard’s computer science program’s ongoing mission to popularize the field by expanding outreach.
“When we grew CS about 10 years ago, the faculty themselves proposed that CS at Harvard should be different in that it should not only have excellence in computer science, but a strong outreach component,” former School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti says.
He added that computer science will become “a discipline in which we would connect at society in large,” a goal that aligns with the liberal arts mission of the College.
The recent rise in female CS concentrators is another development that attests to the success of their accomplishments, according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith.
“As a CS faculty member, it’s great to hear that more students are interested in computer science,” Smith says. He adds that the department is “pleased that the concentration is seeing a surge in this area” and that administrators and faculty members have successfully developed CS “as a concentration that appeals to women.”
‘A HOT, COOL THING’
Key to the CS50’s popularity is the final project component, an exercise that enables students to develop their own web or mobile apps. Past projects, such as “I Saw You Harvard” and “Rover”—a mobile app that updates users on events, news, and deals around Harvard—have either won entrepreneurship competitions like the College’s four-year-old i3 Innovation Challenge or become enormously popular among the undergraduate community.
“A lot of people think [CS] is a hot, cool thing and they see the financial potential,” CS concentrator David A. Kosslyn ’11 says.
Kosslyn, who has initiated several web startups to date, co-founded Hack Harvard—a January Term program that aims to help students further develop their CS50 apps.
Kosslyn says he believes Hack Harvard and the student-initiated Hack Nights—weekly gatherings that extend Hack Harvard into the semester—have been instrumental to “fostering [a] community” that is similar to the experience that students enjoy from CS50.
Many students are interested in web development, whether it is through a non-profit project or a for-profit enterprise. History and Science concentrator Melissa C. Oppenheim ’12 serves as co-president of the Digital Literacy Project or “DigLit,” a web non-profit that promotes computer and internet access around the world. She says that technology non-profits like hers can use web platforms to help low-income communities.
“Over the last 10 years, the internet has become more ubiquitous,” Oppenheim says, adding that the success behind many web and mobile startups is that they are “accessible to large number of people.”
DigLit, which won i3 last year, is also one of several entrepreneurial enterprises that have been supported by the Undergraduate Council, which also endorsed Hack Harvard.
TALK OF THE TOWN
The popularity of computer science extends beyond CS concentrators.
Thomas Torello, lecturer on Molecular and Cellular Biology who advises about 200 students concentrating in MCB and Chemical and Physical Biology, estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of his advisees have taken CS50 to fulfill one of their concentration requirements.
“CS50 is a great course and I encourage it for students interested in programming, and in particular for students whose thesis research could benefit from it,” Torello says, adding that the problem solving and programming skills taught in the course help many students to write algorithms to analyze data.
Statistics concentrator Liyun Jin ’12, who is also an inactive Crimson editor, took CS50 in the fall after watching a video of Malan at Harvard Thinks Big last year and seeing the course occasionally mentioned on Harvard FML in chatter like: “My roommate will not shut [up] about CS50. It’s driving me nuts, and I’m not even in the class. FML”
Jin says her father, who is a software engineer, encouraged her to learn computer science because “programming is a useful skill to have when you’re finding jobs.”
“It really captures your interviewer’s attention,” she says.
Mitelman says she sat in on that first CS50 class because she thought computers were cool.
“I wanted to empower myself rather than just appreciate computers,” she says.
Mitelman attributes the course’s success to Malan’s teaching style, saying that he made the class approachable to even those who had no prior experience in computer science.
Malan says that CS50 is not an exclusive environment, adding that 77 percent of students enrolled in the class last fall had no prior experience in coding.
“We have also tried to create an experience for students whereby they feel part of something special, an incredibly immersive experience after which they feel quite proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Malan says.
“It opened a lot of doors and gave me a lot of opportunities,” Mitelman says. “CS50 has changed my attitude towards my future.”
This summer, she will be interning at Microsoft.
—Staff writer Amy Guan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Jane Seo can be reached at email@example.com.
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