A little over three weeks ago, Yale computer science professor Brian Scassellati was at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy when the office’s assistant director pulled him aside. He told Scassellati that the office has been closely watching the development of the joint Harvard-Yale CS50.
“Good luck,” he added.
On Friday, Scassellati told this story at two information sessions in WLH and the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design, held to recruit undergraduates to become CS50 teaching fellows and course assistants. As the new Yale CS50 professor, Scassellati began the talk by emphasizing that CS50 is a “true experiment” for Yale and Harvard because it is one of the first of its kind for partnerships among the Ivies. It will also be the first time Yale professors rely on undergraduates to function as TFs by leading sections and grading papers. Although students at the information session posed questions about how Yale can invest in CS50 without expanding the Computer Science Department faculty — which has remained roughly the same size since 1989 — Scassellati assured the group that the administrative support for CS50 at Yale indicates increased investment in the department, which he hopes will translate to hiring more faculty.
“CS50 is part of this larger effort to say that computer science is essential to being part of modern society,” Scassellati said, noting that Yale’s language requirement reflects the University’s belief that studying a language makes students more globally aware. In five to 10 years, he hopes Yale will have the same view about computation.
Sahil Gupta ’17, who attended the information session, said he is thrilled to apply to be part of the CS50 staff, which would make him one of the first undergraduates involved in the program. He agreed with Scassellati that CS50 can be crucial to getting students excited about computer science because now “even an EP&E major can see what’s to gain from a working knowledge of computation.”
He added that he trusts undergraduates’ capabilities to teach other undergraduates, noting that they might be even more invested in the success of their students than the average TF would be.
At the information session, Jason Hirschhorn, a current Harvard senior and a CS50 teaching fellow who, after his graduation, will work full-time at Yale overseeing the joint course, said that after the application deadline, interviews will be held over the course of three weeks. They plan to have decided on the new teaching fellows by spring break. After deciding upon the fellows, Hirschhorn and Scassellati will train all of the new hires to make sure they know the course material, he added.
Harvard CS50 professor David Malan said there were around 40 attendees at each of the two information sessions and over 100 people submitted a statement of interest. Malan added that they are looking for applicants with good computer science backgrounds, but first and foremost, they are looking for applicants to whom students would be comfortable reaching out with questions and whose personalities would make them effective teachers. Malan added that they are working with the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning to help train teaching fellows.
Stelios Rousoglou ’18, who has applied to become a teaching fellow, said he is hopeful that CS50 will help the administration realize the importance of increasing the size of the Computer Science Department. He added that until now, the administration has treated computer science just like every other department, even though no other department has seen such a large increase in students majoring in the field over the past few years.
“I understand how people fear that our CS Department can’t handle another increase in majors and potential majors, but I believe that the administration is bound to see that and take immediate action,” Rousoglou said. “Why they haven’t done so? So far, God only knows. And Salovey.”
Jessica Yang ’16, who showed up at the information session, said she was unsure whether she would apply for the teaching fellow position — which requires a minimum of 12 hours of work a week, but often ends up taking upwards of 25 hours a week — or the course assistant option, which would only require six to 10 hours per weeks. She added that the first group of undergraduate teaching staff will be critical in shaping Yale’s CS50 culture, which she hopes does not simply become a replica of Harvard’s.
Both course assistants and teaching fellows will hold three hours of office hours a week and attend weekly staff training, as well as help host CS50 related events. In addition, teaching fellows will teach 12 to 18 students in section every week, help prepare and grade student problem sets as well as field students questions via discussion boards and email.
Scassellati emphasized to students at the information session that a teaching fellow position will be different than other peer tutor jobs, in which tutors are only responsible for grading papers and answering questions during office hours. Instead, CS50 teaching fellows will spend time preparing for sections and working closely with students.
“The eyes of the world are upon us … but the heart of the course is being able to have a really great staff, and that is what we hope to find in this room,” Scassellati said to the room of over 30 students.
The CS50 teaching fellow application allows students to submit a five-minute lesson plan on any CS50-related topic. It also highly recommends that applicants have a GPA of 3.33 or higher. The application is due by March 2.