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CS50 Forays Into High School Computer Science with AP Pilot

Mohammed N. Oosman, a university recruiter for Facebook, welcomes the crowd at CS50 Puzzle Day. Malan has described "a mutually beneficial relationship" between CS50 and tech companies.
Mohammed N. Oosman, a university recruiter for Facebook, welcomes the crowd at CS50 Puzzle Day. Malan has described "a mutually beneficial relationship" between CS50 and tech companies.
By C. Ramsey Fahs and Marella A. Gayla, Crimson Staff Writers

CS50, one of the largest courses at the College, is adding high school education to its sizeable portfolio of computer science course offerings. The new arm of the course, dubbed “CS50 AP” and supported heavily by Microsoft, is currently being piloted in more than 40 high schools across the nation.

CS50 AP will satisfy the College Board’s soon-to-launch AP Computer Science Principles curriculum. Harvard’s CS50 staff is also providing teachers in the pilot program with curriculum support, supplementary course materials, and regular course updates through a “CS50 AP” wiki in addition to the lectures, which are already available through the online education platform edX.

Mohammed N. Oosman, a university recruiter for Facebook, welcomes the crowd at CS50 Puzzle Day in 2014.
Mohammed N. Oosman, a university recruiter for Facebook, welcomes the crowd at CS50 Puzzle Day in 2014. By Madeline R. Lear

Harvard isn’t the only university getting involved in the AP CS Principles curriculum, which will be offered alongside the already-existing AP Computer Science A. The University of California at Berkeley, Trinity University, and the University of Texas at Austin have all developed and released similar programs and are all expected to receive official endorsement from the College Board, according to the College Board’s website. CS50 Course Head David J. Malan ’99 wrote in an email that he had spoken with the College Board within the past week, though he did not respond to requests for elaboration.

Microsoft, one of CS50’s 16 listed corporate sponsors, is helping spearhead the CS50 AP program. One of the two “CS50 AP Bootcamps” held this summer for high school teachers took place at Microsoft's offices in Redmond, Wa., and Microsoft has provided prospective CS50 AP teachers with scholarships enabling them to take CS50 through the Harvard Extension School before bringing CS50 AP to high school classrooms.

It also appears that Microsoft was involved in developing the CS50 AP curriculum itself. The first CS50 AP update notified teachers that Microsoft senior content manager Natasha Chornesky had assigned two Microsoft interns to start drafting Units 2 and 3 of the course curriculum.

While Malan declined to disclose the amount of money Microsoft had committed to the high school program, Saber Khan, the director of education technology at The Browning School and a teacher in the pilot program, said Microsoft has provided “tons of help.” Though Microsoft was heavily involved, Khan said he never felt that the company’s products were being “pushed” on participants.

Chornesky declined requests to provide comment on the phone and did not respond to emailed questions by press time.

Microsoft also supported a recent CS50 AP Hackathon held at the The Browning School in New York. The impetus for the idea came from Khan, who “pitched the idea” to Chornesky. According to Khan, Microsoft provided much of the logistical support, such as catering and other event planning efforts, for the hackathon.

At the hackathon, which more than 100 high school students attended, Malan and other members of the CS50 production team provided in-person problem set walkthroughs and answered students’ questions.

“Actually getting to talk to [former CS50 TF Zamyla Chan ’14], and actually getting to talk to David Malan was really interesting,” Terrell Edwards, a junior at Browning, said. “It’s a different point of view from watching the videos.”

CS50 AP is being adapted differently at high schools across the country. At some schools, such as Browning and Greenwich High School in Connecticut, elements of the CS50 AP curriculum have been incorporated into existing classes. At others, such as the Cincinnati Country Day School, CS50 AP is being offered as an entire course, according to computer science teacher Marcus Twyford.

Since Malan took over CS50 in 2007, the course has grown immensely both in undergraduate enrollment and scope. CS50 boasts a large following on edX, as well as satellite operations at Yale University, where it was the most enrolled course this past fall. CS50 has also drawn controversy for its corporate sponsorships and what appears to have been a trademark dispute between Malan and Harvard for the course’s title.

According to Khan, the Harvard brand and Malan’s pedagogy “complement each other really well.” The Harvard name, Khan said, was likely important for getting the head of Browning to approve hosting the CS50 AP Hackathon.

Twyford said that while the Harvard brand acts as a “stamp of approval,” the real credit for the course’s success goes to Malan.

“It was all [Malan],” Twyford said. “You watch the lectures, whether live or vocal, and he really brings the energy. Yes there’s a nice production value to it that I’m a little envious of... there’s an energy and insight and a real approachability that says ‘you can do this.’”

Both Khan and Twyford were familiar with Malan and CS50 from their own enrollment in CS50x on the edX platform before CS50 AP launched.

Doug R. Lloyd ’09, a CS50 preceptor, said there are already plans to expand CS50 AP. In addition to current instructor bootcamps being held in Cambridge and Washington D.C., the program plans to launch two more workshops in San Diego and London soon.

—Staff writer Marella A Gayla can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @marellagayla.

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