Art Lopez’s journey as a computer science teacher began five years ago when one of his high school students asked him a question: “Why do Torrey Pines and La Jolla – schools in more affluent parts of San Diego – have computer science classes and we don’t?” Lopez recalled.
Lopez teaches in San Diego at Sweetwater High School, where 85% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs.
“I said, ‘That’s a really great question.’ And the more I thought about it, I realized that this was an equity access issue that ran even deeper than the digital divide. Something was wrong.”
At the time, Lopez taught computer applications, but had no experience with computer science. "I tried to take one computer science class in college, but I felt completely disengaged,” he said.
Through a colleague, Lopez heard about a new computer science principles course at the University of California San Diego taught by professor Beth Simon. The course was funded in part by the National Science Foundation in an effort to create a more engaging and inclusive curriculum.
Lopez used Simon’s curriculum to start Sweetwater High School’s first computer science course in the fall of 2012. Weeks into the year, he learned that the College Board was piloting a new Advanced Placement class called AP Computer Science Principles, designed in part to help close the gender and ethnicity gap in AP computer science classrooms. Of the 46,000 students who took the Advanced Placement exam for computer science in 2014, 22 percent were female. In 2013, eight percent of the test-takers were Hispanic and three percent were African American.
Sweetwater High School applied to be a pilot site for the new AP test, which launched nationwide this fall. Lopez credits Janice Cuny, NSF program director for computing education, for partnering with the College Board and providing vision for this course. "Janice is transforming high school CS education," he said. "She knew we needed to provide an introductory CS course in our high schools and broaden representation -- particularly among women and underrepresented minorities.”
The first year Sweetwater offered computer science, Lopez had 21 students enroll. Five years later, 80 students are taking computer science at his high school –- and the initiative has spread across the district. “We went from teaching zero CS courses five years ago to 42 CS courses throughout our district this year.”
On September 14, Lopez and two of his recent graduates had the opportunity to speak at the White House Summit on Computer Science For All. “One of these students is a Latina. None of her family has graduated from college. But because of this class, she is motivated to be a computer scientist.”
Lopez offers these insights for schools that want to add a computer science program or increase diversity within an existing program.
Identify Potential Teachers: Lopez says that schools don’t necessarily need to bring in new faculty. “You just have to have at least one teacher who wants to offer the course and a supportive principal,” he says. “Then get that teacher trained.”
Forge Partnerships: “We didn’t go from zero CS classes to 42 in five years all by ourselves,” says Lopez. His district worked with UC San Diego and NSF to train 55 current middle and high school teachers. Additional teachers attended AP Summer Institutes. Sweetwater is now working with partner districts to create a regional professional network so teachers can help one another out.
Actively Recruit Students: Lopez says that one advantage to using existing personnel is that these teachers already know the community and can work to recruit students who may not view themselves as computer scientists. “When my students look at me, they see themselves represented,” says Lopez. He and other high school teachers went into the middle schools to generate interest.
“I wanted the kids to understand that there are no barriers in this course. Anyone can come. If a kid is interested, let them in the course. AP Computer Science Principles has become a gateway for kids who have never thought about taking an AP course. We take in ninth graders and kids with learning differences. Everyone is welcome.”
Lopez says he has seen tremendous changes in students as they study this field. “Computer science teaches kids how to think. They become really interested in computing and computational thinking. Some will want to pursue degrees in field, but it will also help them understand how important computers are in their life and future careers. It opens doors.”