Today was a packed day at Harvard’s #CS50 AP bootcamp here at the Microsoft Headquarters. I learned so many things about Harvard’s plans for the rollout of AP CS50, and learned that we all have questions that only time will answer.
For me, the question of the day was, “What makes me love CS50 so much?”
As I consider this question carefully, and try to parse what makes this feel completely different from my undergraduate experience in Computer Science, I realize that CS50 is full of joy, and for me, that is its most important ingredient.
Within the first hour of the day, we were treated to a hands-on lecture from the inspiring Professor David J. Malan. I had a blast trying to follow pseudo-code instructions from my peers to make a peanut butter sandwich. Needless to say, I couldn’t stop laughing when the instruction required me to “Spread the peanut butter with my nose.” And I will likely never make a PB&J without remembering, you got it, the joy in that moment.
Experiences like these have come to be the trademarks of CS50, and indeed, I am naturally drawn to the theatricality of this course. Not surprisingly, engaging lessons in which the students actively stand up and become the numbers in a sorting algorithm, or watch a phone book ripped in half to see the size of a problem literally cut in half make the content of the course memorable, meaningful, and dare I say, even fun!
There is also a pure generosity and lack of pretense surrounding this course, which is shared widely with anyone that wants to participate. Teachers who are participating in the AP CS50 pilot have been asked to provide feedback and contribute to the development of the high school course. We have been told that Harvard wants to know what we need in order to serve our students. They have promised to work with Microsoft to create course materials to help us succeed in this project, and seem truly eager to collaborate. So, here I am, early in my CS teaching career, being asked to give feedback to Harvard and Microsoft! What’s not to love?
I am also excited about the tribe of other high school educators, whose experiences and teaching strategies will contribute to my own classroom in the coming year. Already, I feel connected to them and look forward to taking on this challenge, and creating something together in a non-competitive, truly collaborative way. We began our time together doing puzzles and laughing, and now I feel empowered to ask them for help when I need it.
At Harvard, CS50 sponsors a Puzzle Day, Hackathon, and Project Fair to develop this same comfort asking for help among their students. Students listen to music, have food and caffeine in abundance, and “play” together during these events. AP CS50 teachers are being encouraged to implement these events at our own schools so that our students can have the experience of “playing” while doing something rigorous and worthwhile. At the mini-Hackathon and throughout the day today, we were encouraged to document our experience by dressing up to take silly pictures in a photo booth.
As I walked out, folks were trying to see how many poufs they could balance on their heads. Silliness and extreme productivity coexisted in a beautiful way. We spent the day tackling complex, challenging problems, and yet there were smiles all around, and an overall feeling of empowerment.
While considering why no one looked daunted by the enormity of the task before us, I was reminded of some research that I read in graduate school about Piaget’s Theory of Play, distilled in Teach Like a Champion as the “J-Factor“: “The J-Factor will help your students get more comfortable in your classroom and these games will help them understand the information you give them.” Today at CS50 bootcamp, the J-Factor definitely helped me, and I plan to foster it in all of my classes next year.
It will be a year of joy as I dance and sing through CS50 with my students, and I can’t wait!