Faculty approve CS50 for Yale

Just under a month after announcing that Yale’s computer science department was considering importing Harvard’s most popular course, faculty voted to bring CS50 to Yale.

Following what Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway described as a “long, healthy discussion,” faculty at Thursday’s monthly meeting voted overwhelmingly to approve CS50 as a class to be taught at Yale. Computer science department chair Joan Feigenbaum said that the next step for CS50 will be for Harvard to approve the sharing of CS50 with Yale. If the course earns approval, she noted, Yale will formally introduce the class in Fall 2015.

Faculty members also approved a motion presented by Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean for academic affairs at the Graduate School, which proposed making an exception to the provisions regarding undergraduates in support of instruction. This exception, Feigenbaum explained, allows undergraduates to serve as learning assistants — a role she said is critical to the course.

While computer science and mechanical engineering professor Brian Scassellati, who will teach the new course at Yale, said that generally, once courses have been approved by the Course of Study Committee, faculty vote to pass them. He expected that there might be more controversy in this case.

The course will use undergraduate “learning assistants” to serve as tutors, graders and also discussion section leaders. Undergraduates currently serve as peer tutors and graders in the computer science department but have never been allowed to serve both roles at once until now, Feigenbaum explained.

But in an important distinction from graduate student teaching assistants, Feigenbaum noted, undergraduate learning assistants will not be responsible for such tasks during reading week or exam period. She also noted that as the course evolves, she expects that other differences will emerge.

Computer science professor Holly Rushmeier, who has used peer tutors in her introductory courses for years, said that such students are “extraordinarily effective.” Scassellati added that he thinks undergraduate learning assistants will play a crucial role in the course.

Scassellati said he expected that having undergraduates perform such a role will be the most controversial aspect of the course. But Holloway noted that while this practice has not existed at Yale in the past, it is standard at many peer institutions.

Holloway said that at one point during the meeting, several faculty debated the merits of undergraduate learning assistants, adding that some professors from more subjective fields expressed concerns about whether grading would be fair if handled by these undergraduates. However, he noted that issues of subjectivity in grading would not arise in CS50.

Rushmeier said that some faculty members asked whether the use of undergraduate learning assistants could affect other departments’ courses, but explained that the provision only applies to CS50.

“The new course is a unique model for teaching computer science and is not in any way going to be forced on any other discipline,” Rushmeier said.

Assistant professor of computer science Ruzica Piskac said she believes that introducing CS50 will draw attention to Yale’s computer science department as a whole, which could attract more prospective majors, doctoral students and professors. Computer science professor Richard Yang explained that he supports the addition of CS50 to the department because it will further promote a collaborative working environment among undergraduates in computer science.

“It appears that students learn better in a more social environment in intro CS classes such as [“Introduction to Programming”],” he said.

Several students interviewed were also excited that CS50 will be moving forward.

Computer science major Rachel Protacio ’15 said she thinks that CS50 is a wonderful effort and that any way that Yale can add to its repertoire of engaging introductory computer science courses is a step in the right direction. She noted that if she were not graduating this spring, she would have loved to be an undergraduate learning assistant for the course.

Aileen Huang ’17, another computer science major, said she thinks that a class on programming will be very appealing both to majors and non-majors. Yale’s CS department often receives criticism for being too theoretical and focusing too much on “the literature” of computer science, she explained, noting that implementing a course like CS50 could be a favorable response to what some see as the department’s shortcomings on this end.

However, not all students interviewed were thrilled about the course’s arrival.

Computer science major Alex Reinking ’16, who teaches for HackYale, explained that he is “strongly opposed” to having CS50 taught at Yale due to the course’s content.

“CS50 manages to water down both [existing Yale course CPSC 223], while at the same time introducing students to the worst aspects of web programming, a topic that has no place in a self-respecting computer science department,” he said.

Reinking said he thinks that while programming is a useful skill for many students, it is not academically rigorous, adding that programming classes more difficult than CS50 are available at many community colleges. He added that he does not believe Yale’s computer science department needs more programming classes and that CS50 should not count towards the major.

Rasmus King GRD ’17, a computer science graduate student, said he believes that Yale’s computer science department should focus on its overall lack of resources rather than on adding individual classes like CS50.

“[CS50] may well be a good course, but what Yale really needs to do is invest more seriously in growing the department itself,” King said. “It can’t solve the problem just by having a big CS50 intro course imported from someone else.”

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