Innovations in Teaching: The Beauty and Joy of Computing

By Hayley Baker

Amidst the recent hubbub regarding the role of the Digital Humanities, many liberal arts colleges are offering more and more courses in critical approaches to technology. A number of universities are also encouraging students to learn technical ins-and-outs. This is the goal of the introduction to computer science course at the University of California, Berkeley, CS10: The Beauty and Joy of Computing. The webpage for the course states:

“Computing has changed the world in profound ways. It has opened up wonderful new ways for people to connect, design, research, play, create, and express themselves. However, just using a computer is only a small part of the picture. The real transformative and empowering experience comes when one learns how to program the computer, to translate ideas into code.” 

The primary goal of the course is to attract non-majors and excite students about the possibilities of computer science. Taught in a graphical language called Snap!, CS10 works with a colorful programming environment from MIT that helps make important computing concepts easier to learn. The course does not just stop at teaching programming, but also includes lectures about the history and future of computer science, social implications of computing, and the possibilities to change the world. It strives to encourage students traditionally not represented in computer science to continue on the computer science track at Berkeley.

Other universities are developing introduction to computer science courses with similar goals. CS50 at Harvard also encourages non-computer science students to take the course. The course site states that the class does “more than just teach you how to program, this course teaches you how to think more methodically and how to solve problems more effectively.” University of Washington offers CSE120, an introductory course that requires no prerequisites. In addition to learning how to program digital artifacts like websites, students also explore ethical and legal aspects of computing. University of California, San Diego offers an introductory course for non-majors, CE21, that teaches students how to critically evaluate and understand how a program works. 

CS10 was born out of the CS10K project. Led by Jan Cuny, program officer of the National Science Foundation, CS10K aims to tackle the issues of computer science education in high school. Because each State has control over its own educational standards, approaching the College Board about a new AP course was the one single point of national leverage to improving computer science education on a national scale. The idea is that if more students are exposed to programming at the high school level, more students will be encouraged to take computer sciences courses at the college level.  

Berkeley professors Dan Garcia and Brian Harvey worked on the pilot of CS10. Garcia was on the advising board for the CS10K Principles course. Six professors from five universities were chosen to run pilots of CS courses in the 2010-2011 academic year that worked with the CS Principles framework. Harvey ran the pilot of CS10 at Berkeley informed by the seven big ideas and six computational processes developed by CS Principles.  

Data gathered and published in 2012 by the University of Washington on all five pilot courses demonstrated success in terms of attracting women and minority groups. The gender balance across the five pilots showed 59% women and 41% men among 654 reporting students. The population of minority students was 11.1% of the total of 661 reporting students. There were also no significant differences between final grades for males and females, indicating that females learned as well as males. The results continueto improve. Speaking with Garcia on his continued work and experience teaching CS10, he said: “We hit our apex spring 2013, with 106 women and 104 men enrolled. Women had a better GPA than men did.” The results show that women are equally capable of succeeding in a programming course. In addition to promising enrollment statistics, this year there are an equal amount of women undergraduate teaching assistants as there are men. Garcia noted “not only do we have the students at parity, we have all of our staff at parity.”

Garcia credits the enrollment and performance parity not to simply making the course easier, but to a change in philosophy:

“We have a lot more partner work and right-brained work in CS10 than we used to have. When you isolate people and put them in the basement not very many will succeed. Let people collaborate and work together and share opinions, then people succeed. If you let students work together you can let everybody succeed.”

When asked his thoughts on what success within the future of computer science education would look like, Garcia responded “a continued growth of students who wouldn’t normally be taking computer science take and engage with CS10.” Envisioning CS10 as a kind of discovery course, he hopes that eventually similar introduction to computer science courses could fulfill Letters and Science breadth requirements at more universities. Rather than a specialized skill, enjoyed only by full-fledged computer science majors, Garcia envisions a future in which “more people know and learn about how great computer science is so that they can have in their back pocket no matter what major they are.”

As more students continue to learn basic programming skills, more technical know-how will make its way into the humanities’ approach to studying technology and digital media. Introductory courses that seek not only to provide technical knowledge to students, but to tackle greater issues within technology education, help to bridge the gap between skills learned in the humanities and the skills learned in the sciences and engineering. 

Hayley Baker is a senior at University of California at Berkeley majoring in rhetoric. University of California at Berkeley is home to the Alpha of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.