Building on Hype in Cambridge, CS50 Kicks Off at Yale

In a video documenting the first meeting of an introductory computer science course at Yale, a cohort of teaching fellows wave their hands enthusiastically and hundreds of students in the audience cheer.

“I’m here to introduce...all of the students at Yale who as of this morning have made this the most popular course at Yale,” course instructor Brian Scassellati says, facing the camera with a grin.

The course, CPSC 100a: “Introduction to Computing and Programming,” marks the first time that Yalies can count themselves among the hundreds of students who this semester will take Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I,” the flagship introductory computer science course at Harvard that has become as much a campus cultural phenomenon as a class.

CS50 Lecture
In the first CS50 lecture of the semester on Wednesday, instructor David J. Malan '99 explains the concept of binary to students.

After both schools approved plans for the high-profile class to cross over to New Haven this fall and course staff spent the summer coordinating the logistics of the expansion, both classes started on Wednesday.

Both Sanders Theatre, the home to massive CS50 lectures at Harvard, and an auditorium at Yale “seemed quite full,” David J. Malan ’99, a Computer Science professor of the practice who teaches the course in Cambridge, wrote in an email.

Yale Law School auditorium, with a capacity of about 500 students, was completely full, according to Jason C. Hirschhorn ’14-’15, a former CS50 teaching fellow at Harvard who now works full time on the CPSC 100a staff. In Sanders, Malan and his teaching staff introduced their Yale counterparts through Scassellati’s video.

Although the course will operate on two campuses and students enroll under different catalog titles, the material will be “one and the same,” Malan wrote in an email. Each campus will have its own sections, office hours, lunches, and a CS50 fair, where students showcase their final projects.

CS50 lectures, meanwhile, will occur primarily in Cambridge, and taped versions will stream to Yale students. Course staff have also arranged buses to take Yalies from New Haven to Cambridge this Saturday for CS50 “Puzzle Day” and the CS50 hackathon in December.

CPSC 100a has also added a section specifically for Yale faculty and staff members, according to Hirschhorn.

The Yale course leaders say they are eager to be part of the hype surrounding the immensely popular course, which has attracted thousands of students over time and was recently parodied by anonymous critics on Harvard’s campus and online.

“This is an extremely exciting experiment,” Scassellati said in an interview. “We’ve never done anything like this.”

Scassellati and Yale computer science department chair Joan Feigenbaum both said the class marks a turning point in the school’s approach to the discipline, specifically with its focus on the practical applications of programming.

“For many years, we had heard from Yale students that they wanted a more real-world focused introductory course,” Feigenbaum said.

Scassellati called CPSC 100a the first of its kind at Yale. “We’ve never had a course that’s really, I think, quite so targeted to students with no experience before,” he said.

Hirschhorn wrote in an email that students seemed to enjoy the opening lecture at Yale on Wednesday, asking questions about problem sets and sections.

“During dinner that evening, one student even sat down with me to talk about the binary bulbs demo!” he wrote.

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at melissa.rodman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

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