Classes Grow, Interests Change

Spring course enrollment indicates increasing interest in varied fields

The course enrollment statistics published on Friday show that exciting classes can attract new students and appeal to broad audiences. This semester, 642 students enrolled in Statistics 104: “Introduction to Quantitative Methods for Economics.” Sociology 190: “Life and Death in the US: Medicine and Disease in Social Context” grew from 265 students last year to 408 this year. The diversity of popular courses demonstrates that engaging and relevant material, combined with great teaching, can encourage students to investigate new fields that they would not otherwise discover.

Introductory classes are often the gateway to concentrations, and interesting classes have the power to give new life to smaller, less considered fields. Back in 2003, we reported that enrollment in computer science courses had plummeted. Before David J. Malan ’99 took over instruction for Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I,” the course still enrolled just 132 students. But the pedagogical strength and reputation of CS50 led to its renewal. In fall 2012, CS50 drew 651 students, and the class has inspired students to pursue further studies in the field. Enrollment in Computer Science 51: “Introduction to Computer Science II” has been rising steadily, with 240 students registered this spring. Without a popular class like CS50, students may never have discovered their interest in computer science. While genuine interest in a subject may survive a boring, dry class, it takes an engaging class to make students aware of interests they never knew they had.

But even when these classes are taken on their own merit and not as part of a path to a potential concentration, they are a powerful part of the educational experience. Of the hundreds of students per class who take Stat 104, only a small handful will pursue a degree in statistics. Similarly, only a fraction of CS50 students will graduate from Harvard with a computer science degree. But in a world where problems cut across disciplines, the high course enrollments in courses that teach the essential tools of a field are encouraging. Harvard provides the opportunity for students in the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences to apply tools from other fields to their own areas of interest. The enrollment numbers show that students are taking advantage of that opportunity.

The key to these courses is often good teaching. While courses like Economics 10: “Principles of Economics” regularly report huge enrollments because of already-prevalent student interest in economics, courses that seek to attract students to new fields need good teaching. CS50 has gained a huge following among undergrads in part because of the course’s commitment to innovative teaching. Any concentration that hopes to attract new students by offering an accessible introductory course needs to think seriously about pedagogy, and the result is courses that raise the bar for teaching at Harvard.

Exposing students to new fields and varied modes of thought should be an objective of the Harvard experience. This is especially crucial for fields like computer science, where it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of innovation in both technical and humanistic spheres lies. This spring’s most popular courses indicate that students are pursuing fields that will allow them to explore and enrich themselves.