HCII Faculty Writers of Crash Course in Computer Science

July 11, 2017
Crash Course Computer Science graphic

The first known use of the word, computer, was actually in reference to a job title, not a piece of technology. In spite of the past trend for men to more frequently take on the job of computer scientist, the first recognized computer programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace. These are two facts out of hundreds shared in the new PBS Digital Studios Crash Course series on computer science, with weekly episodes posted to YouTube.

The series, which launched in February of 2017, is hosted by Carrie Anne Philbin, an award-winning computer science teacher and director of education for the Raspberry Pi Foundation. "Needless to say, I am passionate about this stuff," Philbin says emphatically in the introductory video to the series.

The writers behind the educational series are equally as passionate about communicating and demystifying computer science. They are Human-Computer Interaction Institute faculty members Amy Ogan and Chris Harrison. Amy Ogan is an educational technologist, co-director of the OH! Lab and assistant professor at the HCII. Her research looks at the next-generation of educational technologies and how it can support the social and cognitive aspects of learning. Chris Harrison is also an assistant professor in the HCII. He is the director of the Future Interface Lab where he and his students develop novel sensing and interface technologies.

A Crash Course series dedicated to computer science, both its history and practice, was born in an unlikely place: the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

"We met John Green at the World Economic Forum last year, and Chris pitched him the idea of Crash Course Computer Science " explained Ogan. "We both really wanted the opportunity to get a broader perspective out to a wide audience on computer science as a field, and in particular, be able to speak to all the human-centered computing topics that we care so much about here!"

Green, author of award-winning books The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, launched the first Crash Course video in 2012 with his brother. Today, the Crash Course series includes topics ranging from astronomy to history and has received more than 600 million video views.

When the subject matter received a green light, Ogan and Harrison began the process of developing a 40-part curriculum.

“The goal from the beginning was to demystify computers as magical devices with incomprehensible operations, and boil them down to simple, underlying mechanics” said Harrison.

The series starts with a review of the very earliest “computing” devices, like the abacus, first used in Mesopotamia around 2500 B.C. The next few episodes work up from Boolean logic circuits to processor designs, laying the groundwork for a larger arc in software concepts.

"For me, this is the part that's really exciting:  demystifying computing for people who may look at a phone or a laptop and feel like they will never understand how they work." Harrison added, “this is also an amazing opportunity to get people excited about pursuing careers in computing.”

The series has already received positive comments from viewers who have not had the opportunity to learn about computer science in school or other learning environments. Comments include: "My high school does not offer comprehensive computer classes, let alone computer history. Thank you!"

They also come from people who are currently learning computer science and want to engage with other topics in computing, like this comment: "I'm studying computer networking in college (taking my first few major courses), and this series couldn't have come at a better time!"

Another compelling part of the curriculum, Ogan believes, is the introduction to major players in the computing field who come from underrepresented groups.

"Like the host, Carrie Anne, I've been interested in supporting women in computer science ever since I was the only girl in my high school computing classes." She continued, "we know how much of an impact role models can have on students selecting a career path, so I've been really excited to see comments like, 'Wow I want to learn more about Ada Lovelace. I had no idea the first programmer was a woman! So cool!'"

Advancing underrepresented groups in computer science is a critical initiative within the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. While the national average of women among undergraduates rests at 16.5%, this year's incoming class of Carnegie Mellon undergraduates was comprised of 48% women.

"It's really amazing the changes that have been happening in the field over the last 10 or 15 years, and I'm so excited that our program is so diverse," Ogan said.

Tune in to the Crash Course Computer Science YouTube channel every week to get the latest episodes written by Amy Ogan and Chris Harrison.