Cinco de Mayo: A Major Milestone for Computer Science Education

05/03/2017 02:17 pm ET Updated May 03, 2017
AP-CSP Students

Friday, May 5th, as many Americans are celebrating the Mexican holiday with food, drink and friends, an estimated 51K high school students will be sitting down to take the first ever Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles (AP-CSP) exam. This may not seem as festive as more traditional May 5th events, but to those of us in the computer science (CS) education community it’s the party of the decade!

The AP-CSP course and exam are the result of nearly ten years of dogged work by hundreds of education advocates, researchers, and high school teachers, as well as investments from the National Science Foundation and industry supporters - most notably Dr. Jan Cuny of NSF and Lien Diaz of College Board. After piloting the course at sites around the US, AP-CSP launched in the Fall of 2016 in 2700 classrooms nationwide - the largest launch of an AP course to date.

The story behind AP-CSP begins in 2008 when a small group of academics and teachers gathered for a meeting they thought was about updating the existing AP computer science course, but were surprised to be contemplating creating a whole new course. Participation in AP Computer Science A and AB was weak and stagnant relative to other subjects. From 2006-2008 an average of 275K students took the AP Calculus exam and 98K took AP Statistics, while AP Computer Science was limping along at around 20K students per year. That’s thirteen times more students taking calculus than computer science. Worse yet, the make-up of the students in the course was not very diverse, and not even reflective of the makeup of AP test takers overall. AP-CSP represents the CS education community’s collective attempt to right this wrong.

Why This Matters

Advanced Placement (AP) is a program of the College Board which offers college-level courses and examinations to high school students, and many colleges and universities grant placement and college credit to students who obtain high scores on the exams. AP courses are college-level courses and represent a rigorous capstone of study of that topic for a high school student. AP is one of the few ways we measure the pipeline of students heading to college and what fields they are likely to study. The lack of students in AP Computer Science from 2006-2016 (330K CS vs. 38M Calculus) is reflected later in the shortage of computer science graduates and qualified tech professionals, which ultimately limits economic growth and prosperity for the US. Participation in AP Computer Science is a complex problem to understand, but in short - the course is only available in a fraction of schools, most schools lack adequate preparatory courses for students to be ready to succeed in a college level computer science course, there is a significant shortage of qualified teachers, and in many states computer science still does not count towards core graduation requirements. The new AP-CSP offering effectively doubles the number of students taking AP computer science in the US. More importantly, since AP is part of the established system of moving students from high school into college, adding the AP-CSP course and exam creates a structural change that works with and leverages the education system to get to the goal of more students and more diversity of students prepared to study computing fields in college.

What’s Different?

AP Computer Science Principles (AP-CSP) is designed to be equivalent to a first-semester introductory college computing course. The course focuses on computational thinking and problem solving, use of computational tools to analyze and study data, societal implications of computing such as security and privacy, and is unique in its focus on fostering students creativity by using computing to address issues relevant to their lives. AP-CSP is additive and parallel to the AP Computer Science A course, which is focused primarily on computer programming. Moreover, AP-CSP is designed to reflect a wider spectrum of computing fields and appeal to a broader range of students. This clearly clicked for high school sophomore Dara Hechter:

“I think that the course gives students an opportunity to be creative and explore different areas of computer science, contrasting AP CS A which is mainly focused on Java. When many people think of Computer Science they usually think of coding, but computer science is so much more. The topics covered range anywhere from cyber security to binary. The one topic that made the greatest impression on me was the idea that everything in our world is made up of bits. This changed how I see my daily activities such as making a phone call and overall how I see the world.”

Let’s Party!

This is a momentous week for the CS education community. On Tuesday, about 60K students sat for the AP Computer Science A exam, which has steadily grown in participation since 2011. On Friday, an estimated 51K students will take the AP-CSP exam, nearly doubling the number of students taking any AP Computer Science course from 57K in 2016 to 111K combined in 2017. We’ve been working hard for almost ten years to get to this day and I think it is worth shouting about. I plan to kill two birds with one stone by having a margarita in celebration and solidarity!

As we departed the Obama White House, the Office of Science and Technology Policy team collaborated to create a timeline of milestones in science and tech during the administration. It was a really interesting way to visualize all the people and processes that contributed to each project. I think this occasion similarly warrants a timeline of milestones to document the contributions of literally 1000s of educators, researchers, funders, supporters and students that contributed to this process. Please contribute your milestones here and share successes, photos and quotes about your #APCSP experience on all channels. If you want to party with others, join the CSforAll Teachers AP-CSP celebration webinar 5/3/17 at 7PM ET.

To the 2700 dedicated educators that stepped up to teach this course – THANK YOU and happy #TeacherAppreciationWeek!

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