CS50 Tops Course Enrollment While Popular Gen Eds Fall Short Due to Course Caps


Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science” retained the reigning spot as the College’s largest course this fall, a distinction held by the perennially popular Economics 10a: “Principles of Economics” up until 2017.

The returning course General Education 1058: “Tech Ethics: AI, Biotech, and the Future of Human Nature,” a 2016 veteran, had an enrollment cap but trumped both the uncapped courses in popularity, garnering lottery entries from 1025 undergraduates, according to Government professor Michael J. Sandel.

Of these 1025, 666 undergraduates enrolled, according to data from Sept. 9 available on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences registrar website.

Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology professor Amy J. Wagers, who co-chairs the Faculty committee on Gen Ed, has previously defended the course caps, arguing that small class sizes allow for better student interaction.


“While it is conceivable that one could achieve those kinds of interactions in a larger group, it's more challenging,” Wagers said. “As enrollments increase, you have smaller groups that coalesce and then you're less likely to move outside of your normal peer group, and participation becomes harder in the common dialogue of the class.”

CS50 garnered 735 undergraduate enrollees, followed by Tech Ethics, Ec10 with 601, and Statistics 110: “Introduction to Probability” with 535.

Life Sciences 1A: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Chemistry, Molecular Biology, and Cell Biology” broke into the top five this year with a cohort of 325 College students.

Biology professor Richard M. Losick said that he attributes LS1A’s popularity to the wide range of future classes for which it prepares students.

“It’s like a platform to get some skills that they could use in neurobiology or evolutionary biology or molecular biology,” he said. “And we also like to think that the way we teach is unique. We interweave chemistry with biology in the same course. Almost every other university and college bins biology and chemistry in separate courses for freshmen.”

Ec10 is also expanding in breadth this year, according to Kennedy School professor Jason Furman ’92, who — along with Economics professor David I. Laibson ’88 — just took the course over from Economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw.

“I think it’s particularly important to show that economics is not just the study of finance, but can help us understand inequality, education, gender, race, all sorts of issues,” Furman said. “We're trying to teach a broader set of topics, spending more time on both understanding economic models but also critiquing those economic models.”

Furman added that this year’s iteration of the course will also be differentiated by more frequent lectures, as well as by a new textbook — from which, he noted, the author is collecting no royalties from its sale to Harvard students.

CS50 is also experiencing a number of changes, according to Computer Science professor of practice David J. Malan ’99.

“Perhaps the most significant change for Fall 2019 is that the course will fork off in its final two weeks into multiple tracks, each with its own lectures and problem sets,” he wrote in an email. “During those two weeks, all students will watch their choice of lectures online (so that all three tracks can happen in parallel) and submit their own track’s problem sets.”

The three tracks are web programming, mobile app development, and game development.

“What ultimately matters in this course is not so much where you end up relative to your classmates but where you end up relative to yourself when you began,” Malan wrote. “While CS50 is certainly challenging for many students, myself included back in the day, it's also a community.”

In Tech Ethics, Sandel said he is expanding the course community to encompass the entire University.

“As a pedagogical experiment, we wanted to gather Harvard College students with students from the professional schools to debate questions of Tech Ethics together,” he wrote.

Statistics professor Joseph K. Blitzstein — who heads Stat 110 — also emphasized the theme of community, but in relation to his course staff.

“The massive size of the course would be a massive challenge for answering questions and grading homeworks, but I'm lucky to have an army of awesome TFs,” he wrote.

Some freshmen said they were “overwhelmed” by the size of their first lecture courses, especially in these particular classes.

Ty L. Geri ’23 said that attending lecture was like watching a “show.”

“It’s quite cinematic,” he said.

Charlie J. Maki said he found the scale both “fascinating” and “intimidating.”

“It just seems immense — like everything from the architecture, to the kids here — everything just seems really big,” he said.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.