Teaching Policy People to Code at the Harvard Kennedy School

Part 1: hypothesis & goals


This summer, digital HKS is excited to launch an experimental pilot that will help MPP and MPA students at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) learn Python.

Over the next two to three months, we’ll share more details about this experiment: why we are running it, how we are going about doing it, what we hope will happen, what actually did happen. We’ll also share how this effort dovetails with some of our thoughts about the future of technology and technologists in the public sector.

In this first post we will talk about why we’ve chosen to provide resources to teaching students to code, and why we think tackling this challenge over the summer is the right approach.

Measuring and Satisfying Demand

One thing which hasn’t been clear to many faculty at HKS is the appetite among students to learn how to code. Most assumed that a small minority cared: we suspected the number was significant. Our first step was to simply create a Google Form to solicit interest to see if the experiment was even worth considering. This form was our Minimum Viable Product. If after sharing it with students, no one filled it out, we could pack everything up and move on to the next thing.

However, after emailing all incoming and a large minority of returning students, about 245 HKS students expressed an interest in participating (representing about 27 percent of all policy and administration students next year — we did not offer the course to mid-career students as they are pre-occupied with an existing summer program). To be clear, we don’t expect every one of these students to participate or complete the course (although we are hoping to get as many as possible), but this outcome still stands as a significant signal of interest.

Focusing in On Data Fundamentals:

A Huge Opportunity for Data and the Public Interest

The power of data in public policy analysis and development has always been at the core of how the HKS enables its students to engage in transformative public-sector management. This isn’t the only value proposition of the school; there’s a constant and healthy tension between those who focus in quantitative methods and those who believe in the power of narrative, adaptive leadership, and negotiation to drive policy. Yet today more than ever before, data exists within the public sector and on the internet that, if unlocked, could create significant public goods and help solve public problems. When HKS was founded, datasets tended to be limited in number and scope. They were expensive to produce, relatively high quality, and created for statistical analysis by agencies and economists. Today, almost the reverse is true. Public servants live in a world awash in data–but it’s messy, unstructured, and it takes a special set of skills to find value within it. The fundamental skillsets and ways of thinking necessary to successfully leverage this new world of data are different from the skillsets demanded in the past. Equipping policy students for today’s data rich, but messy world, is part of the goal of this experiment.

Teaching A Large, Popular, and Growing Language popular with Data Scientists

One question we occasionally get is ‘Why Python?’ For us, Python occupies a sweet spot. The narrow goal of the summer camp is to enable HKS students to take CS109 — the introduction to data science. However, beyond that, dedicated graduates of this summer camp could to skill “up” into software development more generally or data science more specifically. At the same time, participants could also easily skill “down” and learn R for data analysis and statistics.

An additional reason is there is a lot of demand for Python skills in the labor market. In 2017, labor market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologiesfound that across industries, demand for Python-related skills grew by 182%in the last two years–and average advertised salary for jobs that required Python knowledge was $101,903. Increasingly, this includes jobs in the public or non-profit sector. Simply visiting Code for America’s job board gives a sample of some jobs for which coding in python is important.

Making Use of the Summer:

High Opportunity Cost for Fall and Spring Introductory Computer Science

I actively discourage MPP or MPA students from taking basic coding courses while at Harvard and believe the Kennedy School’s decision to let students register for them was, and is, a terrible idea. The opportunity cost of taking such a course is enormous. There are many free or low-cost courses for learning to code; why would you pay a Harvard tuition to do what is essentially free??? Worse, time spent in a coding class is time students won’t spend taking courses that are truly unique, with incredible faculty students can only find here. Marshall Ganz is respected and beloved the world over for his scholarship and practice of building self-reliant and strong communities–students can spend a semester getting his advice and training on a real-life organizing project within their own communities. Former UN Ambassador Samantha Power has fought for human rights and democracy in some of the toughest diplomatic environments on earth — and she’s here on campus to share that experience. Khalil Muhammad is one of the nation’s leading scholars on race and inequality; his courses push our students to understand the critical role of history and institutions in today’s policies, and how to move forward. These courses are, for many, once in a lifetime opportunities.

We know that students want to add coding or data science skills to their resume, and taking this summer pilot course is not a way to avoid taking computer science courses. Rather, it’s our goal to make sure students can take value-add courses in machine learning and advanced topics, while still making time for the incredible professors we have here in the building.

Keeping you up to date

All of us at digital HKS look forward to seeing how the students build their skills during the summer, and the kinds of academic and professional doors that opens for them in the coming year. Keep an eye out for future posts from us — and as always, don’t hesitate to reach out to us with questions.

This piece was written by David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy at HKS and Ben McGuire, an HKS student who is, by chance, participating in the Python Pilot.

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