CS50 Logs Record-Breaking Enrollment Numbers

First Day of CS50
Hundreds of students crowd Sanders Theatre for the first meeting of CS 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.”

UPDATED: September 11, 2014, at 9:45 p.m.

Nearly 12 percent of Harvard College is enrolled in a single course, according to data released by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar’s Office on Wednesday.

The course, Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I,” attracted a record-breaking 818 undergraduates this semester, marking the largest number in the course’s 30-year history and the largest class offered at the College in the last five years, according to the Registrar’s website. Including non-College students, the enrollment number totals 875.

Last fall, about 700 students enrolled in the course, placing it second only to Economics 10a: “Principles of Economics,” which drew 764 students. This fall, Economics 10a is the second largest course, enrolling 711 total students.

CS50 instructor, David J. Malan ’99, and other computer science professors said that the boost in enrollment stems from increasing Harvard-wide and nation-wide interest in computer science.

“Harvard students are smart people,” said Harry R. Lewis ’68, former dean of the College and current director of undergraduate studies for Computer Science. “They have figured out that in pretty much every area of study, computational methods and computational thinking are going to be important to the future.”

Lewis postulated that his course this semester, Computer Science 121: “Introduction to the Theory of Computation,” enrolled more students than it ever had before: 153. The number of Computer Science concentrators at the College has increased each year for the past five years, from 86 in 2008 to 153 in 2013.

Malan also said that “it is possible” that the decision to exempt CS50 from the new restrictions on enrollment in courses occurring at the same time helped bolster its enrollment numbers. Last month, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris sent an email to course instructors notifying them of tighter controls on simultaneous enrollment for all courses except CS50.

Malan said that simultaneous enrollment data will not be available until he surveys his students later this week, but that the course typically attracts around 100 students who enroll in another course that meets at an overlapping time.

Computer Science associate professor Eddie Kohler said CS50’s increasing popularity also speaks to the structure and accessibility of the course.

“It’s an experience, it’s not even a course exactly,” Kohler said. “That’s part of what [Malan’s] goal was, to bring the content to as many people as possible.”

Ninety-one students enrolled in CS50 this semester opted to take the course sat/unsat, similar to last fall. The sat/unsat option, an alternative to taking a course pass/fail, allows students to earn either a grade of “Satisfactory,” for letter grades from A to C-, or a grade of “Unsatisfactory,” which is considered a failing grade.

While one less student than in 2013 opted to take CS50 sat/unsat by the time study cards were due on Tuesday, Malan said he would “be thrilled” if more students chose to take CS50 sat/unsat.

“I think for as long as I can remember there’s never really been a culture at Harvard of taking courses pass/fail and exploring unfamiliar fields,” Malan said. “I think that’s unfortunate.”


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