There has been much discussion and debate lately about the prospect (now certainty) of bringing Harvard’s introductory programming course, CS50, to Yale. This course is of little value to prospective computer scientists and it will add undue strain to our Computer Science department. Still, I hope that this will prove to be the catalyst for the expansion that the department so desperately needs.
Lest anyone say that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I write this with 13 years of programming experience, spanning all levels of abstraction. I’ve built websites for companies, written device drivers for robots, designed my own programming languages and now I’m doing original research.
I teach for HackYale, a student organization whose mission is to equip students (computer science majors and non-majors alike) with the practical programming skills necessary to get involved in the programming world. Our goal is to give our students the tools necessary to implement their visions. I enjoy this work and believe that it is important.
That said, I am opposed to bringing CS50 to Yale. Why? Because programming is not computer science.
Programming is a specific practice within computer science, but it does not begin to encompass the full theoretical breadth of the field. Programmers are to computer scientists what mechanics are to mechanical engineers. Thus, programming doesn’t fall strictly under the umbrella of academic pursuits.
CS50 manages to water down the material covered in Yale’s Intro Programming and Data Structures courses, while introducing students to the worst aspects of web programming. You can walk into any community college, load your schedule with courses titled “Introduction to Web Publishing,” “Java II” or “Linux Admin I” and become every bit as good a programmer as you’d need to be for a startup. I know this because I took those classes at a local technical college as a student in secondary school. While reading up on CS50, I looked at exams from past years. I can say confidently that the community college exams I took were more challenging.
But since it appears to be a done deal, we can, I suppose, take solace in the fact that CS50 is a popular course with high enrollment, which will hopefully attract more students to the major. This may have the added benefit of involving more women, who currently represent only around 20 percent of CS majors nationwide and even less at Yale. CS is fairly unique in this gender disparity; even in mathematics, a traditionally male-dominated field, some 46 percent of degrees are now awarded to women.
Additionally, the software industry seems to take CS50 seriously. Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, is giving a talk to the class. If this means more money for our CS department, then the opportunities for growth may justify bringing the course to Yale. And perversely, it may put such strain on the CS department that Yale will at last be forced to make offers to potential new faculty and graduate students.
Nevertheless, this means the CS department will have to swap out an important, rigorous course (whichever professor Brian Scassellati would have taught) to satisfy the demands of a student body that doesn’t know what it wants.
The Yale CS department desperately needs to expand. While I greatly admire everyone in the department — they are excellent researchers and professors — they aren’t superhuman. There are only so many hours in the day, so many students one can dedicate his or her time to, and frankly, there just aren’t currently enough professors to meet the growing demand for computer science at Yale.
Hopefully, this compromise will be rewarded with additional faculty and graduate students. It is frustrating that despite having the second largest endowment of any university, anywhere in the world, Yale seems only to respond to negative press and to Harvard.
CS50 may be good for Yale CS insofar as it promotes opportunities for expansion. The CS majors here are world-class and deserve the best education available to them. It seems contradictory to Yale’s mission of expanding STEM to so completely ignore a gem like our CS department. Our CS graduates end up at best of the best in industry: Google, Intel and Microsoft. Our CS PhDs teach at the best universities, as well: MIT, Harvey Mudd and Rensselaer.
Our CS graduates become Turing Award winners, Gödel Prize winners and MacArthur Fellows. It is ridiculous that Yale isn’t doing more to grow our department. Importing CS50 seems like a cheap and short-sighted way to get around actually doing that.
Alex Reinking is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact him at email@example.com.