daily californian logo


Apply to The Daily Californian!

Five Questions: Brian Harvey, CS education innovator

article image


We're an independent student-run newspaper, and need your support to maintain our coverage.

NOVEMBER 16, 2012

In any given public place, it’s not uncommon to find children using smartphones or tablet computers.

The world has become a place where anyone can compute anywhere at any time, but it wasn’t always that way. Before UC Berkeley electrical engineering and computer science lecturer Brian Harvey began teaching on campus, he was a high school teacher, one of the first in the country to put computers in the hands of young people.

Computers were hard to come by in the 1980s, but Harvey pushed to acquire professional level hardware for his high school students to learn with. And even after moving on to teaching UC Berkeley students, Harvey has worked to make computer science accessible to all students, including non-majors.

The Daily Californian sat down with Harvey, who will retire at the end of this school year, to discuss what motivated him to encourage young people to learn about computer programming.

Q:  How did you become involved with K-12 computer education?
A:  I had been working as a computer programmer in the 1970s, and I was getting sort of bored with it, so I started to look into teaching and got a high school math (teaching) credential. I figured I would just be a math teacher, but as it turned out, a high school in Massachusetts happened to be looking for someone to start a computer department.

Q:  How did you get involved with computer programming?
A:  I got involved with the Artificial Intelligence lab my freshman year at MIT by accident. I was working at the radio station there, and somehow found myself in charge of the mailing list for monthly program notes. To maintain a mailing list, you need a computer, and they had a computer system you could fool around on, but freshmen weren’t allowed to use it. I discovered the AI lab because they would let anyone come in and use their computer. So I was happily maintaining my mailing list on the computer, and I found a bug in the text editor. I brought it to one of the official systems people, and the guy said, “I’m busy. Why don’t you fix it yourself?” I said, “What? They’re going to let a freshman with no experience mess with their system?” And he said yeah. He showed me where to find the source files, and I got in there, and there was no turning back.

Q:  How did your experience learning about computers affect your philosophy at a teacher?
A:  Decades later, when I became a teacher, that was the kind of environment I wanted to create. I didn’t want there to be curriculum. I wanted it to be a place where kids could come in and hack (program). I’m a huge fan of the exploratorium.

Q:  How did that philosophy translate to teaching at UC Berkeley?
A:  Well, I like building learning environments. I never liked standing at the front of the room lecturing. I prefer to put the tools — all the computers, programming languages, gadgets — in front of the students and let them learn what they want to. That’s why I’ve spent so much time working on the sort of self-taught version of Computer Science 61A (the first core class for computer science majors). I hope it will outlive my retirement.

Q:  What does the future of computer science hold for students?
A:  It’s a very exciting time. There’s huge amounts of data to mine now, so it turns out we’ve got to do some fundamental reinvention of basic things. Until pretty recently, you had to be a genius-type programmer to successfully handle data on that large scale, and we’re starting to find ways to improve on that. And the economy seems to be bad for everyone except computer programmers, so it’s a good time to become one.

Contact Christopher Yee at 


NOVEMBER 15, 2012