UC Berkeley instructors develop new computer science course

Students work during a computer science class in 273 Soda Hall.
Kevin Hahn/Staff
Students work during a computer science class in 273 Soda Hall.

Two UC Berkeley instructors are developing a new advanced placement computer science course geared in part at increasing historically low female and minority enrollment in the field.

The course, which is anticipated to be offered in high schools nationwide starting in the 2015-16 school year, aims to fill a critical gap in computer science education and a lack of gender and racial diversity in computer science — a trend that has been documented at UC Berkeley.

According to a February demographic summary of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering — which houses the campus computer science department — out of the 3,052 students enrolled in the college in 2010, only 20 percent were female. Underrepresented minorities made up only 7 percent of the college, compared to a campuswide 16 percent.

UC Berkeley computer science lecturers Brian Harvey and Dan Garcia are working to reverse that trend through the AP course by creating greater interest in computer science in high schools. Garcia has been a member of the course’s advisory group since its infancy in 2009, when the College Board received a roughly $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the class.

“The challenge that Berkeley Engineering faces is the challenge faced by 95 percent of engineering schools in the nation,” Garcia said. “It really is a pipeline problem in K-12 schools, which the NSF has been trying to fix.”

Garcia started teaching the campus course Computer Science 10 in 2009, which he said was heavily influenced by the framework proposed by the College Board for the AP class and now serves as a model for high school classes currently in pilot stages and other university classes across the country.

“When I got a list of guidelines of what this new course (was) about, I brought it back to Berkeley, and we transformed our computer science course,” said Garcia. “We launched our course in fall 2009, and we were the only one of the early pilots who had taught the course before.”

Many of the piloted courses being offered in participating high schools and universities across the country are also using BYOB  — open source programming software developed by Garcia and Harvey.

“At our university, we’re using BYOB as a programming platform,” said Jeff Gray, associate professor of computer science at the University of Alabama. “We’re also teaching disabled students to program using voice commands, and for that we’re using Snap!, another programming platform that UC Berkeley is developing.”

Gray said one of the problems with attracting students to computer science in college is that in high school there is a large jump between the skills required for basic computer courses and the existing AP Computer Science course, which focuses heavily on computer programming.

Scholars at a 2008 conference hosted by the NSF focusing on increasing computer literacy, where the idea for a new class was first introduced, also noted that the rate of college graduates majoring in computer science does not match the growing rate of jobs in the field.

Studies by the NSF show that the number of students taking the existing AP Computer Science exam fell by 15 percent between 2001 and 2007, while a study by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute found that the number of college freshmen intending to major in computer science fell more than 70 percent between 2000 and 2005.

“There’s a gap between the fundamental computer literacy course in high school where you learn how to create spreadsheets in (Microsoft) Excel and the hardcore AP computer science course,” Gray said. “We think this new course fits the gap very well. It’s going to raise the bar of computing across high schools and colleges campuses.”

Another problem facing the field is a lack of high school faculty members who can teach at the intermediate level and get students interested in computer science.

To get teachers prepared for the new course, Harvey taught two six-week workshops to 60 high school teachers this past summer. The training was funded by two NSF grants totaling $1.2 million, which UC Berkeley shared with University of North Carolina at Charlotte and which will also contribute to future training.

“The NSF wants to have 10,000 new high school AP computer science teachers to teach the course by 2015,” said Harvey. UC Berkeley is on track to train more than 120 of teachers by the end of summer 2013.

Afsana Afzal is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Brian Harvey as a UC Berkeley computer science professor. The article’s headline also incorrectly identified him as a professor. In fact, Harvey is a senior lecturer.

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  • Calipenguin

    The NSF study spans 2001 to 2007 and the UCLA study spans 2000 to 2005. This period predates the economic downturn, so college students chose more lucrative majors in business or bioengineering while staying away from computer science since so many IT jobs were outsourced to China and India, while H1B visa holders competed fiercely with U.S. citizens. Our jobless recovery from the subprime crash and Obama’s disastrous mishandling of the “stimulus” money has few bright spots, but computer science jobs have become much more popular as tales of Facebook and Google employee perks become legend and recruiters snap up any CS, EECS, and math graduates who know the difference between Objective-C and C++. Women and underrepresented minorities who were admitted to Cal on merit are not dumb, so dumbing down any science for their benefit is an insult. If a lucrative career alone is not enough incentive for anyone to learn the nuts and bolts of CS and software engineering then a CS course using Kindergarten programming tools won’t build their self-confidence to tackle more advanced courses. I’m not criticizing the course material itself. It’s great for informing non-CS majors about what goes on in a MacBook or iCloud. But part of the purpose of prerequisite courses like CS 61(ABC) is that they weed out anyone without the aptitude and personal drive to excel in CS for a career in this field.

    • disqus_ohsYHYHLRJ

      Sure, they look like Kindergarten programming tools, but they have a lot more power than that. And the class definitely doesn’t dumb anything down, it just makes it all more exciting. For instance, at the bottom is a link to a project made by some CS10 students. Keep in mind that it’s most likely these guys’ first time taking a programming class. You have to admit that it’s pretty impressive. And giving students the ability to make fun things like these from the get-go helps them (a) decide if this really is the subject for them without saying “Well, it’s just the weeder course I don’t like” and (b) give them the confidence they need before stepping straight from no programming to a weeder course.

  • I_h8_disqus

    I don’t know if adding a new AP course will really attract under represented groups. Wouldn’t it be nice if high schools taught computer science as a regular class like they do languages? That would get people involved who are interested, but who do not think they are ready for AP classes. AP classes are not a great option for the majority of students going on to most colleges.

  • John

    BYOB is one in a long line of visual programming languages. These types of programming lines have again and again been found to be near useless. They are fun toys, and designing them is even more fun as an academic exercise for Grad students professors past a certain age.

    However, these toys don’t teach people how to program and time spent learning them is wasted for students who actually want to learn how to program.

    • disqus_ohsYHYHLRJ

      As someone who has taken CS10 (the course at UCB that uses BYOB), I would disagree. Sure the languages themselves may be “useless” in terms of industry use, but the class was absolutely amazing. We learned a lot of concepts that were repeated in CS61A and the construct of the language itself was so similar to Python that the transition over was pretty seamless. All in all, I would say that it taught me a lot of programming concepts and gave me a well-needed confidence boost before stepping into my first weeder class.

  • Guest

    “According to a February demographic summary of the UC Berkeley College
    of Engineering — which houses the campus computer science department —
    out of the 3,052 students enrolled in the college in 2010, only 20
    percent were female.”

    My friend is a computer science major, and he’s under the College of Letters and Science. The College of Engineering is where electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) majors go. Does this statistic include computer science majors in the College of Letters and Science? Please clarify.