More than 800 Harvard undergraduates are enrolled in the college’s introductory computer science course this semester, making it the most popular class currently offered by the Ivy League university.
Computer Science 50: Introduction to Computer Science — better known as CS50 — has been offered at Harvard since the 1980s, but only this semester became the college’s largest course, taking the title from Introduction to Economics. This is a major shift for CS50 — in 2002, the course enrollment was less than 100 students.
To learn more about CS50 and the broader trend towards computer science, Business Insider spoke with Harvard Professor Harry Lewis, a former Harvard College dean who currently serves as director of undergraduate studies for the computer science department. He told us that even though CS50 “is not an easy course” and has “a correct reputation as being a lot of work,” there have been signs for a few years that it would soon become Harvard’s most popular class.
“The trends have definitely been upwards in all the computer science courses for the last five years,” Lewis said. “The number of students who check on their application form that they intend to be computer science majors at Harvard is still a pretty small number, but it’s definitely grown.”
According to Lewis, one reason for CS50’s popularity boom could be the range of students who could benefit from the course.
“CS50 is an unusual course in that it serves multiple audiences — it’s the introductory course for computer science concentrations and it’s also a course for students who want a serious introduction but are not planning to be majors,” Lewis said.
Even with the recent rise in student enrollment in the department, Lewis noted that computer science majors are still a “small fraction” of the more than 800 Harvard students in CS50.
Another reason that Lewis gave is the influence of CS50 professor David Malan, who he described as “a fabulous teacher and is very very innovative in how he’s rethinking the traditional parts of the course.”
One example that Lewis described was how CS50 handles office hours, a necessary part of any college course.
The course will take over a largest open space Lewis can find, allowing students to work together and the course’s teachers to handle any questions in real time. Students used to meet in dining halls, Lewis said, but the course has recently outgrown that and is now trying to find a new space for everyone to fit.
Lewis said CS50’s take on office hours was one of the “cultural things that made the course very popular and very succesful.”
A commonly cited explanation for the recent rise in computer science majors nationwide is the prospect of a secure job and high wages following college. Lewis said that while employment was not the main motivation for many of the course’s students, “there’s certainly an element, at least a vague awareness of where the jobs of the future are going to be.”
However, he said, “I think it’s less directly people signing up for it because they think its a secure high income, students are trying to find something exciting … not just money making things, but socially useful things.”
One word Lewis used to describe students who took the course was “empowered” — “In one semester, they have learned something they can do something with, they can apply it to their own field of study,” he said.
The Harvard computer science department appears to be in the enviable position of gaining students over the course of their undergraduate careers, as Lewis said that “most of the people who are majors are converts from other fields, people who are switching over from all disciplines.” It seems that CS50 is an important aspect of that growth.
“This course is really kind of a conversion experience for a lot of people,” Lewis said.
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