AP Computer Science Principles Paves the Way to STEM Success  

It’s Computer Science Education Week—and there’s probably no better time to look at where we are as a nation in accomplishing our computer science goals.

“When the National Science Foundation approached the College Board in 2008, there was an overall problem of participation in computer science, particularly among traditionally underrepresented students,” says Maureen Reyes, executive director of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program.

In 2007, 15,049 students had enrolled in an AP computer science course. But since last year, with the rollout of the new AP Computer Science Principles course, 104,849 students took the exam this year (including those students who took the AP Computer Science A course).

Not only that, but the students are more diverse: The number of African American and Latino students more than doubled; the number of females doubled.The number of African American students earning a 3 or higher on an AP computer science exam almost tripled in 2017 with the addition of the new Computer Science Principles course.

In 2005, 21 states had not even one African American student in an AP computer science course—that number is now down to five. Reyes told me that the course is the largest launch in AP history—and AP has been around for 60 years.

Once a kind of closed club, AP is now earnest in its attempt to expand access to underrepresented students, putting resources into supports that help students succeed in the more rigorous, college-level courses.

For the AP Computer Science Principles course, the College Board partnered with eight professional development providers to offer teacher training and resources, many of which were free. The idea was to provide a “whole ecosystem of support for these teachers and students,” Reyes told me.

Laying a Foundation

Jeffrey Lowenhaupt, a math teacher at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics in New York, taught the new course last year.

“It provides a really good perspective on how computer science fits into our daily lives. I never taught the old course, but speaking with some of the other teachers that did, it’s just pure coding. You learn Java and probably get a deeper understanding of one specific computing language, but this course engages the kids more because they learn about the internet, about social implications. They’re required to do research on emerging technologies, and there’s a lot more than just coding,” Lowenhaupt told me.

The course was grade agnostic—anyone who was interested could sign up regardless of their class year, although preference was given to upperclassmen.

One student I spoke with, Edwin, intends to pursue computer science professionally. Taking the course reinforced his plans.

“At the end of the year, since we were finished with the curriculum, we started learning languages formally, and I picked up Python. From knowing what I learned in the course, it helped me learn Python a lot faster.”

Other students I spoke with don’t want to pursue computer science but are planning to study STEM subjects: mathematics and maybe mechanical engineering. Marilyn, who now plans to major in math, told me that the course piqued her interest in math, science, and programming.

“Coding is a main focus of the course, but not the only focus,” Lowenhaupt says. “The grading of the exam is aligned with other things–abstraction, programming, global impact, creativity, and more on top of the coding that makes it a great intro to the field of computer science.”

The Computer Science Education Coalition calls computer science “an emerging skill,” and says that graduates trained in CS are in “high demand in our military and throughout the public and private sectors.” Make sure your children have access to this course. For more information, visit the College Board.