During the 2011-12 school year, a student at Sweetwater High School in National City, Calif., approached teacher Art Lopez and asked why their school didn’t offer any computer science courses.
Lopez said the student wanted to know why their school was left out when schools in more affluent areas had computer science.
“That really made me angry,” said Lopez. “It’s about equity access and broadening participation. We want our kids to have the same chances as any other child in the U.S. to be exposed to computer science and think about that as a possible career choice.”
More than 85 percent of the students at the majority Latino school qualify for free or reduced lunch, and more than 50 percent of the students there are classified as English-language learners.
Today Sweetwater High offers four Advanced Placement computer science classes, including two sections of the new AP Computer Science Principles course, which Lopez teaches in addition to serving as the Sweetwater Union school district’s curriculum specialist for computer science.
An Introductory CS Course
The College Board began offering AP Computer Science Principles, or CSP, this school year.
“It is designed to be a first course in that discipline, so it is open to all interested students,” said Trevor Packer, the head of the AP program. “That’s important to us because in many other computer science courses today there are very few female and minority students.”
Prior to the College Board offering this new course, students’ only other option for an AP computer science class was AP Computer Science A, an intensive Java-programming course that tends to attract students with prior knowledge of the subject. And, boys make up more than 75 percent of the students who take the course.
The College Board’s expectation is that as more students take CSP, more students will go on to take AP Computer Science A, or CSA.
Lopez said that’s something he’s already seeing at this school. Sweetwater High participated in the CSP pilot program prior to the nationwide rollout of the course, so his students began taking it in the 2013-14 school year.
“Those numbers have increased dramatically since we started piloting this program,” said Lopez.
Other schools in the pilot program have seen similar trends. The College Board notes that these schools saw growth in both the number of teachers offering CSA and the number of CSA exams taken by students.
The course is also attracting more girls and underrepresented minorities.
Data collected by the College Board during the 2015-16 pilot phase of CSP show:
- African-American participation was 16 percent in AP CSP compared to 4 percent in CSA
- Hispanic student participation was 18 percent in AP CSP compared to 9 percent in CSA
- Girls’ participation was 28 percent in AP CSP compared to 22 percent in CSA
A Popular Course
The College Board reports that Computer Science Principles is the largest debut of an AP course in the 60-year history of the AP program. In its first year, 2,600 teachers are authorized to teach it, while the prior largest new AP course, AP World History, had 1,000 teachers. So far, 27,000 students are working on their digital portfolios for CSP.
The course consists of projects that students create throughout the year and submit to receive an AP score for college credit in addition to the end-of-course exam.
“The course emphasizes teamwork, collaboration, creativity, and opportunities for students to follow their individual passions,” said Packer. “They’re able to create something that meets a need or a desire or an interest that they have.”
Lopez said he’s been encouraged by the way his students have embraced the course.
“Computer science teaches kids how to think,” he said. “I’ve seen it time and time again where my kids are improving their skills in math, their ability to communicate, read, and write, and it’s all because of computer science because it teaches you about logic and how to problem solve.”
Photo: Students in Art Lopez’s class working on an AP Computer Science assignment. (Art Lopez)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.