Will Teaching New Computer Science Principles Level the Playing Field?

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It’s no secret that computer science (CS) courses are not a priority in many high schools. Across the nation, many schools get away with packaging courses that teach kids to make Powerpoints, spreadsheets and other rudimentary work as ‘computer science.’

But when authentic CS is offered, it’s often in the form of the notoriously difficult and intimidating Advanced Placement courses, whose culminating test only a tiny fraction of students around the nation take and pass.

Realizing the dearth of access to computer science offerings in high school, the National Science Foundation, together with the College Board, convened a group of teachers and academics to craft a new course called “AP Computer Science Principles.” The primary goal of this new course, to be offered in fall 2016, is to increase student access to computer science, computing and STEM through a more multidisciplinary approach than the current AP course, which is focused primarily on programming with Java.

The curricular framework in CS Principles (CSP) is more open-ended, allowing students to study any computer language, including Scratch. It emphasizes not only on learning to program, but on how computers can be used to creatively solve (and sometimes create) problems. Structured around six “Big Ideas,” including abstraction, global impact and creativity, students who take the CS Principles course will walk away with a wider understanding of how computers and humans can interact.

The course is currently in pilot mode at dozens of high schools around the nation. Carol Yarbrough, a teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, has designed a computer science course around theater, art, music and writing. Using the CS Principles framework, her students make 3D models, create visual art and music digitally, all while incorporating computational thinking and math. They learn how computers can be harnessed and programmed to make beautiful things that express their vision.

“Once they have taken the CS Principles course and know more about computing,” says Yarborough, “they are interested in taking other computing courses because they now see the relevance it has to their lives."

Yarborough is also helping to shape a course offered by the University of Alabama, CSP4HS. The course, available to all as a free MOOC, hopes to prepare thousands of teachers nationwide to teach the new Computer Science Principles course. Professor Jeff Gray, who is spearheading the course, estimates there are over 1,000 participants for the 2015 summer MOOC which started June 1st. The course will last six weeks, but participants can sign up at later times, in true MOOC fashion.

“The main purpose of the course is to offer professional development to teachers who are interested in teaching computer science principles,” says Gray.

Like CSP4HS, many other courses and workshops are springing up across the country, often with the support of the National Science Foundation, Google CS4HS and organizations. Mobile CSP, for example, takes MIT’s popular (and free) platform for building mobile apps using graphical code and combines it with the new CSP framework. Likewise, “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” a popular UC Berkeley course for non-CS majors, will now be offered through edX and focus on widening the demographic of future computer scientists through the new CS Principles. Code.org is also working on its own curriculum aligned CS Principles, and are beginning to pilot them in select districts and schools.

The key takeaway is that all of these organizations and funders realize that the biggest obstacle for getting more students interested in computer science is the availability of meaningful courses that students actually want to take. And while many schools would love to offer more CS courses, the reality is that the professional pool of qualified teachers is nowhere near where it needs to be.

In California only 44 percent of high schools offered any kind of computer science courses in 2013-14. Since 2001, the number of teachers assigned to teach computer science has dropped from 520 to 263—a 51 percent decline. This drop comes at the worst possible time, when the jobs that demand computer science are quickly outpacing the supply of graduates with the necessary skills.

There’s no guarantee that these new courses will increase participation in computer science and STEM courses and careers. Will students, after having taken a CSP course, really want to enroll in an AP Computer Science course or major computer science or a related field? And will CS Principles really offer an opportunity for underrepresented communities to get into computer science and begin to crack open the mostly male, mostly white field of computer science?

Gray is confident. “In our first year, we had about 46 percent of enrollment from young women or other underrepresented minorities. This is perhaps two and a half to three times what we see in the current CS course,” he says in reference to the University of Alabama’s 2013-14 study of the pilot’s effectiveness. The study also found “an interesting gain by girls in terms of knowledge gain, in comparison to boys.”

If these trends hold true for the rest of the nation, we can look forward to a future where computer science becomes not just a popular class, but also a gateway for students who have previously been left out, or who have self-selected themselves out of one of the most promising and exciting careers of today and tomorrow.

We won’t get there, however, unless we get enough schools ready to offer these courses, teachers trained and ready to lead them, and states willing to allow AP Computer Science Principles to satisfy college requirements.

Francisco Nieto is the EdTech Program Manager at the Alameda County Office of Education, which is organizing a CSP4T training program for teachers interested in bringing AP Computer Science Principles to their schools.

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