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Engineering the Perfect Intro Course

By Akua F. Abu and Radhika Jain, Crimson Staff Writers

Computer Science 50 enrolled 619 students this semester. Its peer introductory courses in the School of Engineering Sciences, Engineering Sciences 1, Engineering Sciences 50, and Applied Math 50—all taught last spring—had 27, 54, and 107 students, respectively.

“I think CS50 is absolutely exceptional in its growth,” says Eric Mazur, area dean for Applied Physics. He is currently designing a new introductory course in Applied Physics, Applied Physics 50, to be offered next fall. “It’s probably a tough act to follow for physics, but I certainly hope that we can follow some of that approach.”

Mazur is not the only one eyeing the CS50 model.

“We would love to see ES1 grow to gain the popularity that CS50 has achieved,” says ES1 Professor Sujata K. Bhatia.

But professors also acknowledge that different disciplines face unique challenges—from the need for lab space to common misconceptions about their fields—that complicate universal growth on the scale of CS50.

“We hope we get to CS50 fame and enrollment level,” says Marko Loncar, professor of ES50. “On the other hand, it’s a different type of beast,” he says. “Everybody uses computers today ... in my experience, people do not know exactly what electrical engineering is today.”

Even as CS50 continues to pull away from other introductory courses in enrollment figures—enrollment jumped from 494 last fall—its growth trends are not exclusive. Every introductory SEAS course has grown in the last two years, with ES53 doubling and ES50 nearly tripling in size.

These are promising patterns for SEAS, which is constantly on the lookout for new concentrators. But as professors scramble to adjust, many look to CS50 for inspiration.

CS50: SEAS’ SUPERSTAR

CS50’s explosive growth is unprecedented in SEAS. Professors and students alike attribute the course’s success to an enthusiastic teaching staff and engaging lectures, homework assignments that are relevant to students, and a strong sense of community.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, the course boasted the highest overall Q score among SEAS intro-level courses—4.23 out of 5—despite also having the highest workload rating, at 4.16 out of 5.

Many students see an opportunity in CS50 to develop skills that apply directly to their lives.

Matthew W. Yarri ’14 says that ES50, for example, focuses on engineering skills more commonly associated with the pre-digital era.

“Today, you would just buy a computer chip and program it using the type of knowledge you would have acquired in CS50,” Yarri says.

In fact, the relevance of computers in today’s society may have fueled much of CS50’s allure, says Heather V. Hawkes ’13, who took CS50 and was also a teaching fellow in ES50.

“The technical appeal of knowing a little bit of computer science in today’s world is considerable, whereas most people can get by just fine without actually knowing how their radio works,” she says.

But Loncar cautions against misconceptions about the role of electrical engineering. While he agrees that the ubiquity of computers makes computer science seem more useful, electrical engineering is actually necessary for much of the technology that excites students—from building an iPad to designing the face recognition platform that allows tagging on Facebook.

“Without a computer, there is no computer science,” he says. “To build a computer, you need an electrical engineer.”

CHASING CS50

Introductory courses offered by SEAS are meant to be “accessible” and “welcoming” to all students, regardless of background or concentration and career interests, according to Bhatia.

“Really engineering is the application of quantification ... to solve societal problems,” she says.

Professors agree that CS50 in particular is effective in convincing students from a variety of concentrations that engineering can serve them well. Most professors say they hope to improve the “marketing” of their own classes.

Last spring, ES50 introduced t-shirts for students and just this week created a Facebook page for the class.

Mazur says he has already spoken extensively with David J. Malan ’99, course instructor for CS50, about the design of AP50.

“He’s very interested in the pedagogy that I have developed,” Mazur said. “I have looked at his syllabus in great detail to look at how he weaves computer science into projects.”

Mazur says rote memorization and textbook problems are no longer the right way to train “some of the most successful problem solvers you can think of.”

“If you look at the way introductory physics is taught right now for non-majors, I think the syllabus is not very different from the syllabus you would have seen in the last century or so,” he says. “It’s time for an overhaul.”

Incorporating hands-on components into SEAS courses is a universal goal, according to Malan, who was named director of Educational Innovation this year and is working to create and implement new teaching tools throughout SEAS.

Bhatia, who also teaches ES53, an introductory bioengineering course, starts every lecture by presenting a clinical application of the topic at hand.

“How can we as bioengineers come in and help?” she asks her students. She reminds them that they “are part of the patient care team” to help students see the real-world relevance of their studies.

The hands-on approach is enabled by SEAS’ recent investment in student laboratory space. ES50 will double its lab space in the basement of Maxwell Dworkin this coming spring, a much-needed expansion that will facilitate more creative, unscripted design opportunities for students.

Building an intellectual community for students is another important goal for which CS50 has set the pace.

Concentrations are trying hard to foster discussion and camaraderie among students through a variety of initiatives—from workshops, seminars, and stronger undergraduate engineering societies to Friday pizza lunches for engineering enthusiasts in Pierce Hall and weekly cake and ice cream hours for applied math concentrators.

Although not as robust as their CS50 counterpart, the AM50 Fair and ES50 Fair also encourage students to share and discuss ideas.

FINDING WHAT WORKS

But incorporating some ideas means letting go of others. AM50, for example, will most likely forgo CS50-like growth in favor of a more intimate class environment targeted at freshmen and sophomores. Student presentations were a central aspect of AM50’s initial course structure but have since been sidelined by unexpected growth, and the class will most likely limit enrollment to between 30 and 60—with limited spots available to upperclassmen—next spring, according to AM50 professor and SEAS Assistant Dean for Academic Programs Marie D. Dahleh.

“It’s been difficult to address the needs of all the students in the course,” she says, explaining that AM50 will provide a more structured focus on fundamental skill sets.

Lecturer Mauricio Santillana, who will teach AM50 with Dahleh next spring, adds that aiming for a class size on par with CS50 would require an ambitious increase in teaching staff and resources.

And some students also say that a large class does not necessarily translate to an optimum classroom experience.

“I think I prefer ES50 simply because the class was much smaller and the professor was super approachable if you didn’t understand anything,” says Pin-Wen Wang ’14. “Just because of the sheer size of [CS50], it’s more likely that you have a good relationship with your TF.”

Other students enjoy the unique laboratory components that computers cannot provide.

Justine F. Hasson ’14 describes the “amazing” feeling of getting her ES1 project—a flashlight—to finally work after weeks of designing and working on the electrical components.

“Fundamentally, I’d rather be building things by hand or making things that I can touch,” says Hawkes, the former ES50 teaching fellow.

“In CS, you could spend hours and hours and hours hunting for one misplaced semicolon in your code and, when you got it working, it was an incredible feeling,” she says. “But I just preferred building things in ES50 as opposed to hunting for semicolons.”

—Staff writer Akua F. Abu can be reached at aabu@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

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