Puppets and a DJ? It must be ‘Intro to Computer Science’

When Yale joined forces with Harvard for a new introduction to computer science course this fall, it was an unprecedented move — but one both students and faculty members say is paying off.
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Harvard computer science professor David J. Malan, who started CS50 in 2007, with CS50 puppet, at Yale’s Sterling Law Building. (Photo by Dan Armendariz)

When Yale joined forces with Harvard for a new introduction to computer science course this fall, it was an unprecedented move for Yale — but one both students and faculty members say is paying off.

In addition to sharing lectures and other resources, Yale’s CPSC 100 uses the same course structure as Harvard’s CS50. Hugely popular since 2007, CS50 can boast of its own line of merchandise, Wikipedia page and DJ. The New York Times last year listed it as one of 10 courses in the nation that “can change how students think, what they care about or even how they spend their lives.”

A sizable enrollment was anticipated for Yale’s version. The current enrollment of 375, however, exceeded expectations. “We had no idea how many students were going to be interested in this course,” said Brian Scassellati, who teaches CPSC 100. “We are wonderfully, pleasantly, surprised.”

The numbers reflect the importance of computer skills in an ever-increasing number of fields. The course is designed to meet that demand.

“Even if you’re not programming, part of the modern intellectual agenda is understanding the basics of computer science regardless of the field you choose to study,” Scassellati said. “These are the tools that are universal at this point.”

Andi Peng ‘18, head teaching assistant for CPSC 100, talks to students. Behind her are Yale professor Brian Scassellati and Harvard professor David Malan. (Photo by Philipp Arndt)

Scassellati, who shares lecture duties with Harvard computer science professor David J. Malan, will give his first lectures in November. Most of Malan’s lectures are streamed from Cambridge to Yale. Students can see them live on a giant screen in Sterling Law Building or watch the archived lectures on their computers. Known for his energetic presence, Malan ripped up a phone book on the first day of class to demonstrate how a computer searches for information. To underscore other points, lectures feature videos of wisecracking puppets made specifically for the course, and excerpts from movies and television. Guest lecturers in previous years include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Andi Peng ’18, head teaching assistant at Yale, learned of the course while she was in high school. “I was visiting a cousin at Harvard and saw CS50 then. I thought, ‘Wow, this is such a cool class,’” she said, adding that the energy of the class and the students’ enthusiasm made it feel “almost like a culture experience or a phenomenon.”

A few years later, as a student at Yale, Peng jumped at the chance to get involved. Having undergraduates teach sections is a first for Yale, and organizers said it’s a necessary component to keep a course of this scope running smoothly. In addition to the lectures, students meet once a week in smaller groups of about 18 people for 90-minute sections.

And because the lectures and sections are taped and streamed, students can review them as often as they want. These kinds of measures are crucial, Scassellati said, since he and his staff are working with students with a wide range of skills. Students attend sections divided into three levels of experience (students self-select their level, based on how comfortable they are with programming).

“We tailor the individual contact they get, based on their experience,” Scassellati said. “But everyone’s getting the same lectures and everyone’s getting the same material. We tell students over and over again, ‘It’s not so much where you start; it’s where you end up at the end of the semester.’”

A signature of the Yale-Harvard joint course is its own DJ. (Photo by Dan Armendariz)

In addition to the colorful stress balls that get handed out — a CS50 signature — less-experienced students can take comfort in the course’s elaborate support structure. “Even if you’ve never touched a computer before, you’ll still have many people helping you and you could still get to where your peers are,” said Jason Hirschhorn, a computer science lecturer and head of the course’s staff. “More and more students are coming to office hours. We want them to realize that for three hours a night, four nights a week, we have our staff on hand to help with any and all questions you have.”

Hirschhorn, formerly a teaching assistant for CS50 at Harvard, said a lot of work goes into keeping a fun atmosphere. “We have lunches on Fridays where we invite students from the course to come and connect with one another,” he said. “It has nothing to do with computer science, per se, but it’s a great way to make a large lecture course feel a bit smaller.”

Sam Kim, a senior and psychology major, said he believes that “computer skills are going to be absolutely necessary to be an effective leader” in any field. So far, he said, the course has lived up to its billing. “I’m loving it,” said Kim, who describes his own computer experience as “very limited.”

“I’m among those who are less comfortable with computer science,” he said. “But I like how the lectures are recorded and you can go home and review it at your own pace. And they have office hours at Commons most nights of the week, so you can go in and ask any questions about the concepts you don’t understand.”

Scassellati credits the course’s staff for the successful launch. The undergraduate and graduate students began training in April, learning the curriculum and teaching techniques. “That’s one of the things you don’t get anywhere else,” he said. “You might be an expert in programming, but that doesn’t mean you know how to teach it.”

The students go through mock sessions and exercises on everything from managing a classroom and conveying difficult material, to dealing with frustrated students.

“A lot of the things that we developed here, Harvard started adopting for their staff training,” Scassellati said. “So it’s definitely a back-and-forth collaboration.”

Lectures, either in person or streamed on a giant screen, are held at Yale’s Sterling Law Building, (Photo by Philipp Arndt)

For his part, Malan says, the course has “gone wonderfully well on both campuses.”

“It’s been such fun to get to know everyone in New Haven and bring the two schools together,” he said. “We hope, too, that CS50 itself offers students a particularly impactful, memorable experience, shared collectively with classmates in New Haven and Cambridge alike.”

Scassellati agreed that the course has gone “remarkably well,” considering all of the elements involved:

“The fact that we’ve been able to work together like this, that we have 100 staff members in Cambridge and about 45 staff here in New Haven, with everyone working toward the same goal? That’s pretty phenomenal.”

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