Last year, CS50 burst into the academic arena at Yale with DJs, free cake and prize-granting puzzle competitions. Though the cake will remain, other facets of the popular computer science class have been altered, including swapping out an entire coding language.
David Malan, who first created the class 10 years ago and acts as its lead instructor at Harvard, announced the changes online on Aug. 25. Changes include additional academic support for students, slight alterations to the course’s schedule and assignments and the replacement of the computer language PHP with Python, said computer science professor Patrick Rebeschini, who will be the new lead CS50 instructor at Yale this fall. Instructors aim to improve the course experience for students, regardless of their prior experience in computer science.
“We’ve put a lot of thought into how we could make CS50 an even better experience than it was for so many students last year, and how we can adjust some of the challenges that other students faced,” Rebeschini said.
This year, Yale hired an additional 10 staff members to bolster the support provided to students at office hours, Rebeschini said. Additionally, the staff members underwent a longer training than in the previous year, with an additional focus on pedagogical approach.
Rebeschini will also lead a weekly “walkthrough” for students who might need additional assistance in learning that week’s material, which students are expected to learn via prerecorded lecture videos online.
The class has also rearranged some of its assignments and assessment dates in order to improve student experiences. That meant spacing out problem sets, test and quiz dates. Rebeschini said the formerly tightly packed schedule was a “pain point” for students last time the class was offered in fall 2015.
And though students will still learn five different computing languages in the course of the semester, Python will now be taught instead of PHP, a move Rebeschini said was made both because Python is more accessible to students and because it is a programming language more “widely used” throughout the tech world.
“CS50 was initially brought to Yale as an ‘experiment’ to test out new ways of teaching and learning,” CS50 course head Jason Hirschhorn said. “As such, continual improvement — adopting a ‘learning mindset,’ if you will — is part of the nature of the course.”
Saran Morgan ’18, who took CS50 last fall and is now an undergraduate learning assistant for the class, said the “biggest changes” came in the lecture and assessment areas of the course. She added that the course staff had been working on streamlining the material taught in lecture each week as over the years, multiple topics and add-ons had been added to the class, but that nothing had been taken out in its place.
“Indeed, nearly each year have we added something more to the course, particularly its problem sets, whether a new problem or resource or video,” Malan wrote in the online article announcement entitled “This shall be CS50 2016”. “And it’s occurred to me in this, my 10th year, that we’ve never really removed anything from the course!”
Though the changes were only announced recently, the CS50 staff had been hinting at potential changes in the course since last spring. In an interview with the News in April, Malan said the staff was still in the process of reviewing the results of the course’s first offering at Yale in order to make any necessary alterations to the fall 2016 offering.
As of Thursday night, 194 students were enrolled in the class. At this time last fall, about 600 students were signed up to test out CS50. That number dropped to 510 by the end of shopping period, but still represents almost triple the number of students currently enrolled.
When asked if the staff expected a certain number of students to sign up for the class this fall, Rebeschini said because of the “institutional memory” from last year, students should have a better idea about the course by now, and thus the staff expects less variance during the shopping period.
“In all honesty, we have such confidence in the staff — who are undergraduates and graduates themselves — and the power of computer science, that we hope many students both considering CS as a major and those who might even be a bit afraid of technology will take CS50 this fall,” Rebeschini said.
He added that the teaching staff has been encouraged to spread the word about the changes to the course, and that in addition, through the course’s syllabus, the first lecture — which took place Thursday — and conversations with students staff members are highlighting the ways in which they have worked on the course.