Computer science education expands with new AP courses
Hour of Code events can introduce students to computer science, but schools must follow it up with full curricula
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval this week became the latest to commit to computer science education for all of his state’s students. Starting next year, every single district in Nevada will offer Computer Science Principles, an Advanced Placement course the College Board launched this fall.
The first round of the Principles course was in high demand, with more than 2,500 teachers completing the syllabus submission process to offer the course in 2016-17. According to the College Board, that’s the largest AP course launch since AP World History debuted in 2002.
At Sweetwater High School in National City, CA, on the south side of San Diego, students and teachers have been piloting the AP Computer Science Principles course for five years. The school has also offered AP Computer Science A for three of the last five years. That course is the College Board’s fastest-growing, with 57,937 test takers in 2016, up 18% from the year before.
Sweetwater High School teacher Arthur Lopez, who is a member of the White House Computer Science for All initiative, spends all year recruiting computer science loyalists in his district. Besides pitching the courses to his own prospective high school students, Lopez travels to feeder elementary and middle schools, trying to convince students as well as parents to think about computer science.
Sweetwater is an almost entirely Latino high school, so every kid who signs up for computer science helps the nation’s collective average on diversity. The school has also worked to achieve gender parity in classes. Five years ago, less than 10% of students in the school’s computer science courses were girls and now about 35% are — an improvement, but not one to rest on. Lopez still tries to attract female students with discussions of how creative computer scientists can be and how they can have an impact on communities solving unique problems with computational thinking.
"We’re not interested in creating a legion of computer scientists, but we are interested in exposing our kids and telling them computing is going to be important in your life," Lopez said. He tells students an understanding of computer science will help in whatever field they choose, and he also makes clear students should consider computer science as they think about future careers. "It leads to the highest-paying jobs in the country and in the world."
Hour of Code events have been important ways to introduce students to computer science and spark interest in the school’s full courses. During Computer Science Education Week Dec. 5-11, about one-third of the high school population participated in such an event, and elementary and middle schools throughout the district have, too.
Maribel Gavin, principal of Sweetwater High School, has been an important advocate for computer science in her school and throughout the district. She said one challenge they haven’t quite overcome is the need to educate parents about the field so they can help their children consider it. Opening channels of communication early can help, especially because it gives families a chance to understand what computer science means early, before they see an obscure course title in high school.
“We want to expose elementary schoolers to what actions count as computer science so when they get to us, they already know in their minds this is a course they want to take and this is a career path they want to pursue,” Gavin said.
At Conard High School in Hartford, CT, Principal Julio Duarte has supported math teacher Jackie Corricelli in her quest to expand computer science options for students. She has worked closely with the College Board through its development of Computer Science A as well as the new Principles course.
“What we really loved about that [Principles] course is it sort of provides an opportunity for anyone to be able to get into computer science,” Duarte said. “For us, our push is to just try to get as many people as possible, especially our minority students and our female students, to think about computer science. That’s been a really good pathway.”
Close to half of Conard’s 1,550 students are members of minority groups, and about one-quarter of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They all have the two AP courses to consider as well as a non-AP computer science option. Duarte has found the computer science coursework lends itself to authentic learning experiences and it helps students develop a growth mindset about their abilities — two important learning priorities in the high school.
Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York City have all committed to making computer science access universal in public schools. In Nevada, Sandoval’s recent announcement came with a Code.org and College Board partnership to prepare teachers, counselors and administrators to offer courses at the middle and high school level in every district statewide.
Already, more than half of all states allow computer science to count toward a math or science graduation requirement and seven require students take at least one computer science course to graduate. That’s where Sweetwater High School’s Lopez sees continued expansion — if California recognizes computer science as a graduation requirement rather than an elective option, he expects a significant increase in participation rates.
“We want this to be normal,” Lopez said. “We don’t want it to be where we have to do the Hour of Code anymore. We just want kids to automatically be thinking about taking computer science.”
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