Discovery Files

Artful coders

AP Computer Science Principles draws arts students into computational thinking in Alabama

Last December, the College Board launched a new Advanced Placement (AP) course designed to teach Computer Science Principles (CSP). The course, developed with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), intends to make computer science accessible to all students and to increase participation by females, underrepresented minorities and students with disabilities.

For courses like this to be offered across the country, schools need instructors who are able to teach computer science. The CS10K initiative, led in part by NSF, aims to increase the number of computer science teachers to 10,000, and teacher professional development is critical to accomplishing this goal.

Carol Yarbrough, a computer science teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, attended professional development training for CSP in 2013 and has taught the course at her school ever since.

In the past, her computer science courses were filled with students from the math and science track. However, in 2013, Alabama began to allow CSP and AP Computer Science to count as a math credit for students' graduation requirements. Previously, computer science had been treated as an elective that did not contribute to graduation requirements, which is the case in roughly half of the United States.

Two years after attending the training, Yarbrough's computer science classes are now filled with arts students, who focus on creative writing, dance, music, theater and visual arts.

"The old, mathematically-based, computing problems are not very exciting to students who use a smart phone and the Internet every day," she explained.

Instead, students taking CSP learn computing in a context that is exciting to them and allows them to see "how learning computing is relevant to their lives," Yarbrough said.

Her arts students have embraced the CSP course, she believes, because they are able to use mathematics and computer programs to express their creativity. In the class, students create designs that are aesthetically pleasing, write programs to play beautiful music and create interesting shapes using 3-D printers. Along the way, they learn mathematics, programming and computational thinking--a way of solving problems that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science.

CSP is opening up new worlds for these students by merging art with computing.

"The approach that the CS Principles course takes--teaching kids that computing is part of everything, rather than teaching it as a subject in isolation--is vital for these students," she said. "Once they have taken the CS Principles course and know more about computing, then they are interested in taking other computing courses because they now see the relevance it has to their lives."

Teaching students with different interests has also helped Yarbrough refresh her teaching and incorporate new strategies.

Yarbrough found that her arts students embrace open-ended creative projects that could be frustrating to her math and science students. They are enthusiastic about creating products that reflect their vision. These students need more mathematics instruction, but they easily pick up on design and aesthetic concepts.

Yarbrough has also seen reverse benefits for the math and science focused students.

"With the implementation of the Computer Science Principles course, I have seen my Math/Science students become more creative and grow tremendously by hanging on to do some things that are a little out of their comfort zone," Yarbrough said. "They used to tell me, 'I'm not creative, I'm Math and Science.' I don't hear that so much anymore because this class has helped them discover their creative side."

Jeff Gray has been piloting a college-level version of the CSP course at the University of Alabama since 2011 and has helped in facilitating a unique form of CSP professional development. Working with his co-principle investigators, Mary Boehm and Carol Crawford of A+ College Ready, on an NSF grant, their design of the CS4Alabama professional development adopts a teacher leader model, where a cohort of lead teachers mentor new teachers. In CS4Alabama, the majority of the teaching resources are developed and shared by the teachers themselves.

"This method respects the experiences of the teachers in their own classrooms and recognizes the special insights that they may bring to the course, which I may not know about," Gray said.

The professional development follows a blended format, with face-to-face meetings and online interactions. Teachers enroll in a massive open online course (MOOC) during the summer and join an online community, in addition to participating in three face-to-face meetings a year.

Bi-weekly online hangouts are facilitated by teacher leaders, and Google supported an extension to the MOOC that allowed over 1,100 other teachers across the United States to receive part of the online training.

In the first two years of offering the CSP course, Gray has seen significant demographic changes in the students who take Computer Science across Alabama. The CS4Alabama project, which is being evaluated by Haynie Research and Evaluation, is seeing a much broader interest in computing in Alabama classrooms. Currently, the enrollment is 47 percent young women or underrepresented minorities--as opposed to the 19 percent female and 12 percent underrepresented minorities, who took last year's AP Computer Science exam.

Gray believes this is because "CS Principles is not just about programming, but many other things related to computing that show the creative and impactful nature."

Gray will be reaching more teachers in the upcoming year. The third cohort of the CSP professional development just added 22 additional teachers who will begin their training this spring. Since 2011, Gray has taught the CSP course to over 30 pre-service mathematics teachers at the University of Alabama, which now allows the course to fulfill the programming requirement.

"CS Principles was intentionally designed to be relevant and engaging across a wide range of students," said Jan Cuny, program director for computing education at NSF. "Teachers are empowered to make many decisions--choosing the programming languages, applications and innovations that are to be taught--in order appeal to the interests and concerns of their specific students. One size doesn't fit all and Carol Yarbrough's experience shows the power of this approach."