Students Asked, They Delivered: Two Teachers Talk AP CSP
Students Asked, They Delivered: Two Teachers Talk AP CSPCrystal Barrick, Assistant Director, Communications
This winter, Trevor Packer, the College Board’s vice president for AP and Instruction, and David Coleman, president and CEO, sat down with two AP Computer Science Principles teachers and discussed what the course means to them and their students.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Trevor Packer: Art Lopez is here with us today from Sweetwater High School in National City, California. He was one of the teachers who piloted the new AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP) course.
He realized that while many of the more affluent schools in his community were already offering computer science courses, students at his school—which was a majority minority school—were not getting that same opportunities. He set out to change that.
Let me also introduce Susan Van Doren from George Whittell High School in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She went from teaching English to teaching Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles. She has achieved the rare feat of having a 50 percent female/50 percent male student ratio, which rarely happens in computer science classrooms in American education.
Art, what inspired you to teach computer science? Why did you decide to do that, and what was it like to start teaching it in a school that had no computer science at all?
Art Lopez: Well, about six years ago, one of my students came up to me and said, hey, Mr. Lopez, why do La Jolla High School and Torrey Pines High School offer computer science courses, and not Sweetwater High?
And I said you know what, that’s a really great question. I went ahead and started investigating, and what I found really, really upset me. I realized that not only do we have a digital divide, but we also have an issue of equity and access. The kids in my community were not being exposed to computer science, and yet, I will state this very clearly—computer science and computer-related fields would offer our kids the highest-paying jobs in the country.
I realized around that time that, for 25 years, not a single computer science course had been taught within our district. We had 13 high schools, plus middle schools, and we have 42,000 kids. So, along with my then principal, Dr. Romando Rosario, I said, let’s do something about this. Let’s change it.
Coincidentally, in that moment, we had a group from UC San Diego, University of California San Diego, and the San Diego Supercomputer Center that was working alongside with the National Science Foundation and the College Board to provide an introductory computer science course to kids. I was interested—I did not have a computer science background, and I had no idea how to teach the course, but I just said, you know what? I don’t care. I want my kids to get this course inside our high school. So they provided me with the training, the resources, and the curriculum, and the College Board gave me the opportunity to join the pilot program. They were searching for inner-city schools like my own. My school is 98 percent ethnically-diverse. We have 85-88% percent of students on the free or reduced lunch programs.
It takes a village to do all this. It’s not one person that drives it. It was my former principal, my current principal, our superintendent, our school board, our higher education colleagues, the College Board, and the National Science Foundation.
Today I am so happy to report that we have 11 AP CSP courses taught in 13 high schools. And on top of that, we have AP Computer Science A courses offered now. We have 44 computer science courses spread out through our district. It’s been a long journey, and it’s been really empowering to watch what’s occurred. It’s always about kids, and this whole process is about equity access.
Packer: Art, I’ve known you for a while. This is the first time I’ve heard that you weren’t teaching computer science before you began this work. What were you teaching before?
Lopez: I don’t have computer science background, but I can say clearly that computer science has made me a much better thinker. I can demonstrate that with my kids, because we learn from each other every day.
Packer: Susan, I’m curious to know what made you think that, as an English teacher, you could become a computer science teacher—how did you go about it?
Susan Van Doren: Well, it certainly wasn’t my idea. It started when my son was in fifth grade. We went on to my computer and we watched a video for the Hour of Code, and he talked to me about what coding was, and he was very excited—we watched videos of people running scooters around the Google offices, and he said, that’s the kind of job I want to have someday.
So I started doing the Hour of Code in my English classes, and I did that for a couple of years. And two years ago, while I was doing it in my ninth grade English class, I saw students that I had never seen engaged before in education—students who I always struggled with, students who didn’t participate—and they were so passionate about what they were doing. They were solving problems, and they were talking to each other about what they were doing with code.
And it just hit me that this can’t be just an hour out of their school year. I needed to see them this excited on a prolonged level. And so I started a little computer club—and it started very little.
Three or four students came in after school, and we started using Google CS first. This program that made it really easy for someone like me, who had no computer science background, to just suddenly start getting the kids involved in it. All of the videos were there, and I was learning right alongside them.
And then those students said, why aren’t we doing this as a class? We’re learning a lot here through using things like Scratch to create.
And so I said, I don’t know why we’re not doing it as a class! I started researching, and I saw the AP Computer Science Principles class. But it was still in the pilot phase, so I tried to get it on the schedule for the following year, and tried to get certified to teach it. I persisted, and I started taking night classes.
Packer: That’s a lot of work? Why were you doing it?
Van Doren: Well, because the kids wanted it. I’m from a very small school—there are 200 kids, grades seven through 12. We’re a family, and I wanted what they wanted. They brought it to me and said, we want to do this, so I just kept pushing.
We had to sell it to the district, and then I put together a presentation for a tech conference to say we needed computer science in our schools. But then I wasn’t able to make it to the tech conference, and I thought oh, this is terrible—I’m missing my chance to pitch this to the administration and to the teachers in the district.
But then my kids said well, we’ll present it! So I had seven kids in my AP computer science class give the presentation, which ended up being so much more powerful. They talked about how in 2013, we had 51 students in the state of Nevada who took the AP Computer Science A Exam, and only three of them were girls. And that seemed really low for an entire state. But then they talked about talked about what they were doing in computer science club, and that they wanted to have this class.
Two years ago we had our first AP Computer Science A class, and this year we had our first AP Computer Science Principles class. When we did the first AP CSP class, we had 20 students; 10 of them were girls. This year we have 37 students, and 18 of them are girls.
Packer: How does that compare to enrollment in other classes in your school?
Van Doren: I think it’s the only AP class we’ve ever had, and we had to have two sections of it. So it’s very high. We have about 30 percent of our high school’s population taking AP Computer Science this year.
David Coleman: I’ve talked about rural American high schools, and the problem of getting to size and scale here. But I just hope all of us can imagine how easy a fate it is that this course doesn’t begin at all in rural schools—how much depends on teachers like Susan here, and why we as a College Board must now do everything we can to support them.
I’m very moved by Susan’s personal transformation, and the fact that she’s transforming the number of young women in Nevada in one of the smallest schools around. We at the College Board are very impressed, and I just wanted to underscore the other non-profits that are so essential to this story: Code.org, our terrific partner in implementing this course, they developed the Hour of Code, and they should be honored for that and their contribution. The National Science Foundation—with their visionary leadership—came to us over 10 years ago with the idea that the education of computer science must change in this country. And Project Lead The Way—we partner with them closely to ensure that students see the linkage to their careers. I only emphasize these things because it really is a network.
Van Doren: Absolutely. Like Art said, we don’t do this on our own. I had a very supportive principal who, when I first told him I want to teach computer science, never said no, and he always supported me. And we have incredibly supportive parents in the district who got behind the idea. Even community members that don’t have children supported me financially and also just sat down and tutored me in Python.
It’s very humbling for me to be put back in the situation of being a learner who was struggling with something. For me to learn Python is I think like the experience that some of my English students have when they sit down to read Thoreau. Now I’m more empathetic with them when they’re struggling. So it has made me a better English teacher as well.
Packer: Sometimes the discipline can seem a little bit mysterious to people outside of it. Can you talk a little bit about the sort of work your students are doing? What are they creating? What projects are they working on? What do you see them do in the class?
Lopez: We use a program in class called Alice, and it allows kids to create interactive, animated short stories and simple video games, and it’s really cool and compelling because they have to be creative. They have ideas that I would never even think about, and they create these really funny stories, and I just crack up. I ask, how did they do that? They teach me as well.
I think that’s the foundational principle for this course—it allows kids to expand their creativity. They actually think of an idea they want to make happen on the computer, and it’s compelling to watch them explore. They really have a great mindset. Though a lot of my kids, especially the young ones, struggled with the fact that they’re really intimidated. They weren’t sure about the class, but once they start exploring and they start learning, they thought, oh, well, this isn’t that hard. We’re using block programing languages versus text-based languages, and that’s really helped. The best thing about this class is that it does teach kids how to think!
I think everybody in this country should take the class. It can help you learn how to think, and it’s also empowering— it raises confidence. It raises what kids can achieve and what they can do.
It’s wonderful to watch kids exploring how computing works in so many different fields. It makes kids realize that no matter what they’re going to pursue in their future endeavors, computing is going to be a part of it. For example, I have kids that want to go into the medical fields. They want to be doctors. And now they want to get a computer science degree, you know, because it goes hand in hand.
Packer: Yes. You know, Code.org’s website shows so powerfully that in every state, the number of open jobs that require a computing background vastly exceeds the number of college graduates that can fill those needs.
Packer: Do you see students taking your class and then choosing to major in computer science?
Lopez: It’s convincing a lot of my kids to pursue computer science degrees, and it really is amazing.
One is Adrian Avalos. He’s now decided to attend Stanford. He got in. He took several AP courses, and he’s thinking about now going into computer science because of the class.
Another young lady, Carla Gonzales, didn’t know what she wanted to do. But she decided after taking this class that she wants to be a computer scientist. Her dream is to work for Pixar. She’s challenged herself for now to start up at the community college, but she is driven.
I talked to her about two weeks ago, and I said how’s it going? She said, pretty good! I’m taking more computer science classes that are harder than yours, but—because of AP CSP she understands the difficult abstract concepts.
The course raises the level of curiosity, and I think that’s the best thing you can do. The students want to learn. It’s really great to see that I now have a bunch of kids who want to take AP Computer Science A. That’s encouraging.
Packer: Susan, one last question for you. You have achieved this sort of rarity of having a female-male student balance in your computer science classroom. Tell us how.
Lopez: I also want to know!
Van Doren: I’ve wondered about that a lot myself, and I think that it’s a combination of factors. Partly it’s because I’m a girl and I’m teaching the class; I joke about that, but I think also we need to see what we can do to get more female educators teaching computer science.
I’ve also done some outreach beyond my classroom, beyond computer club. I have a fellow STEM leader at my school who teaches AP Bio and AP Environmental Science, and we work together at the summer camp for our kids, grades three through eight. We do a lot of fun activities with the kids (and the high school-age camp counselors) with Scratch and other aspects of STEM, for example.
We also did something we call the “STEM GEM Slumber Party.” That was led by one of my senior girls, Kelsea Parks, who is now at the University of Nevada Reno studying computer science, as a Girl Scouts project. We invited all the girls in the high school to come and spend the night, and we watched Code Girls and had little contests designing apps and doing Scratch Projects and a digital scavenger hunt. Some of them stayed up all night, some of them crashed in the hallways—it was a blast.
We surveyed the girls, when they came in and when they left, about their interest in science or computer science. About 15 percent said they were interested in taking a computer science class when they came in, and when they left, it was up to 85-90 percent.
So we did some things to explicitly attract girls to the course. But also, I think back to 1984 when I was in high school, and I remember walking down the hallways and seeing a computer lab that was more like a closet with a couple of computers in it, and you know, a bunch of guys sitting around. And I remember walking by and looking at it, and feeling that little jolt of curiosity, but then I just kept walking, because it didn’t look like a place that was welcoming to me. I think part of doing this successfully is getting some girls involved, and the rest will follow. I’ve been lucky to be in a school where I have some very strong female students that are passionate, excited, and confident, and they are coming to my class and other girls are following
Learn more about AP Computer Science Principles.