UHLENHUTH: Making Yale comp sci relevant

In our age of digital dependence, the Computer Science Department should be one of the most popular at Yale. From political revolutions fueled by social networking to indie bands raising funding on Kickstarter, computers and the Internet are transforming every aspect of how we live, work and play. Yalies of all stripes are clamoring to engage with these trends, but the Computer Science Department is dooming itself to irrelevance by refusing to provide the tools students need to be successful.

Code is the lingua franca of the 21st century. Whether it’s putting together a website for an advocacy campaign, writing a script to analyze some economic data or creating an app to help kids learn math, programming fluency has become a required skill for anyone looking to have an impact on the world.

The Yale student body understands this and desperately craves some structured way to learn these skills. Because the Computer Science Department refuses to meet this demand, some Yalies took matters into their own hands and founded the enormously popular HackYale group. The organization recruits tech-savvy students to run semester-long classes to teach fellow students basic proficiency in scripting and Web technology.

Last fall, HackYale taught two Web development classes to 60 students. They had to turn away over 500 other students who wanted to learn. This spring, they expanded to teach five classes but still had to turn away over 400 students. Yale administrators, take note: More than 10 percent of the undergraduate student body wanted to learn these skills so badly that they signed up to take an additional class above and beyond their regular schoolwork.

In the words of one faculty member I spoke to, the Computer Science Department’s position is that it isn’t in the business of teaching these “trade school skills.” While I certainly agree that Yale computer science shouldn’t be trying to pump out programmer worker bees, the department has a role to play in offering a few practical classes to give non-majors the programming proficiency they need to drive change in their world.

The department’s decision has repercussions outside of the Yale bubble as well. By failing to provide practical programming classes, Yale is contributing to New Haven’s economic irrelevance. When startups can’t find people with even basic coding skills, they leave New Haven for the greener pastures of Boston and Silicon Valley. As former president of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society, I saw countless Yale student startups sputter and die without because they couldn’t find a technically proficient co-founder. Less than 10 percent of ventures had founders that could actually build a product.

The good news is that there’s an easy first step that Yale computer science could take to start addressing this issue. It pains me to say it, but we could learn a thing or two from a certain institution in Cambridge. One thing that Harvard has absolutely gotten right is its introductory CS50 class that teaches students of all majors the practical scripting and Web programming skills they need to apply tech to their other interests. My sister — who chose Harvard over Yale partially because of classes like CS50 — started the semester knowing almost nothing about programming and finished with a job offer from a tech startup. She might not even end up being a computer science major, but the class gave her a solid set of skills that she’s already putting to work.

It would be simple to create a class along the lines of CS50 here at Yale. By refusing to do so, Yale is doing a huge disservice to its students and leaving them at a significant disadvantage out in the real world.

Max Uhlenhuth is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at max.uhlenhuth@yale.edu.

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