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Computer Science Sees Unparalleled Growth in SEAS

By Akua F. Abu and David W. Kaufman, Crimson Staff Writers

Since 2010, the computer science concentration has experienced the highest growth in undergraduate enrollment out of all departments at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences—from 95 to 169 students. Many professors and students in the department have attributed this change to the increasing popularity of the introductory course Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.”

The enrollment jump in CS50—from 494 in the fall of 2010 to 607 this academic year—has been reflected in a parallel increase in the number of students taking higher-level departmental courses. Enrollment in Computer Science 51: “Introduction to Computer Science II” grew from 167 to 217 students in the last year, according to John G. Morrisett, the course’s professor. Similarly, the size of Computer Science 61: “Systems Programming and Machine Organization” shot from 70 students in 2009 to 109 last fall, according to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar’s Office.

Both professors and students have praised CS50 course head David J. Malan and his staff for drawing new students to the discipline through their interactive and engaging pedagogical style and ability to highlight the relevance and accessibility of a subject matter often portrayed as abstruse and overly-complex.

“Malan has made the course fun, developed a great sense of community, and manages to teach a lot—keeping the material challenging but very, very accessible,” said Morrisett.

According to Malan, CS50 will implement “bigger-than-usual” changes for the fall of 2012. “It will definitely be a good year to take CS50,” he said.

Many students cite CS50 as a motivating factor in their decision to declare Computer Science concentrations.

“I took CS50 the fall of my freshman year and thought it was awesome. After I took it, I realized I wanted to take more CS classes and concentrate in CS,” said Travis A. Downs ’14. “I’ve now taken CS51, CS121, and CS105 as well.”

Despite its success, CS50 itself does not entirely explain the appeal of the Computer Science concentration.

“I had wanted to concentrate in computer science since coming to the college,” Wen-Yuan Yao ’13 said, “I think, regardless of how CS50 went, I probably would have taken more CS classes.”

Others have said that the intensity of the coursework in the computer science department may actually deter students after they take introductory courses.

“If anything, CS50 and the stress was more likely to make me want to stop—just because my project actually went terribly and I didn’t enjoy the last part,” said James P. Hamilton ’14. who is now a linguistics concentrator.

Though CS50 may serve as an entry point into computer science, students and professors emphasize the significant differences between the introductory classes and more advanced coursework, including greater mathematical sophistication and an increased focus on computational thinking.

“CS50 has established a sort of ‘brand’ with phrases like ‘This is CS50,’ so we like to jokingly say ‘This is not CS50’,” Morrisett said.

However, courses such as CS50 have convinced students of the value of computer science courses in other fields of study.

Madelaine D. Boyd ’12, who was a CS61 teaching fellow in the fall, said that she noticed that many of the students in her section were combining computer science with very different degrees.

“Computer science is a highly interdisciplinary major, so it makes sense,” she said. “Any area of study nowadays can benefit from efficient computation on large data sets.”

Morrisett noted the “vast majority” of his students were not planning to become computer science concentrators but were rather drawn from across campus—“everything from art history to biology to economics to mathematics to physics.”

Other initiatives by the department have also been instrumental in the growth of enrollment. The CS faculty has implemented an interactive “project-based” focus in many of its courses and developed new ones covering topics in visualization, privacy, and human-computer interaction. Moreover, the establishment of the computer science secondary field—which requires only four computer science courses—has played an integral role in growth, according to Morrisett.

“I’d say a pretty significant fraction of the students in CS51 will go on to do a minor,” he said.

The growing demand for employees with programming experience has also been cited as an important cause of growth.

“I also think that the rise of Facebook and, more generally, an awareness that you can change the world through just a little bit of knowledge about computation is attracting students,” said Morrisett.

Even Hollywood may have played a role.

“I don’t underestimate the impact of ‘The Social Network’ in planting an idea in somebody’s head, even though that film doesn’t accurately depict life of a CS concentrator,” said CS professor Harry R. Lewis ’68.

—Staff writer David W. Kaufman can be reached at

—Staff writer Akua F. Abu can be reached at

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