by Alexis Martin
This week, as students across the country took the 2014 Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science exam, it is timely to reflect on the severe disparities in the numbers of African-American and Latino students participating in AP computer science courses and taking the AP computer science exam in California (and throughout the nation). Last year’s AP demographics illustrate the extent to which African-American and Latino high schoolers are underrepresented in AP computer science. While African-Americans and Latinos comprise 6% and 37% of the California population, respectively, there were only 74 African-American students (1% of test-takers) and 392 Latino students (8% of test-takers) statewide who took the AP Computer Science A exam in 2013.
By 2020, 1.4 million computer specialist job openings are projected, yet the U.S. produces only 30% of the graduates necessary to fill these positions (NCWIT, 2012). Increasing the availability of AP computer science courses and increasing the gender and racial diversity of students participating in computer science courses is a critical step in preparing the next generation of computer scientists. Without access to AP computer science courses, students are eight times less likely to pursue studies in computer science in higher education (Mattern, Shaw & Ewing, 2011). Taking rigorous computer science courses in high school not only prepares students with the content knowledge and skills necessary for introductory college-level computer science courses, but also can stimulate interest and engagement in computer science among students who would not have otherwise been exposed to or interested in the field of computer science.
To increase opportunities for underrepresented students to participate in computer science courses and stimulate interest in pursuing CS as a major and career, the Level Playing Field Institute is piloting a new computer science initiative funded by the National Science Foundation. LPFI’s Advanced Placement computer science course sequence will provide all SMASH Academy high school students with a three-summer course sequence in computer science, followed by an online academic year AP preparatory course, with in-person support and virtual tutoring, in order to prepare students to successfully take and pass the AP CS exam (even when AP computer science is not offered at their high school)*.
In its pilot year, 18 SMASH seniors participated in the course and a total of 11 SMASH students signed up to take the AP CS exam on May 6, 2014. They are: David Alcazar, Jacob Amedie, Samantha Burnell, Henry Doan, Israel Lopez, Lorraine Manasan, Leilani Reyes, Haile Shavers, Ruben Tapia, Breanna Thomas, and Israel Vega. LPFI is exceptionally proud of the commitment and dedication of this group of scholars who have been trailblazers in increasing CS participation among SMASH scholars and underrepresented students in California. LPFI is also grateful for the dedication of their instructor, Mario Niebla, who came from the IT industry to give back to this community of scholars.
Over the next three years, LPFI aims to move the needle on increasing the numbers of underrepresented high school students in California who take and pass the AP computer science exam, so that the dismal AP CS demographic statistics will be a distant memory and the field of computer science will become more representative of the students and communities across the state and nation.
*Note: Currently, the AP CS A exam is the only computer science exam offered nationwide, but in 2017, a second AP computer science exam (AP Computer Science Principles) which aims to broaden participation in computer science through a focus on computational thinking, problem solving, programming and application to society (rather than a focus on Java programming which is on the AP CS A exam) will be available for students.