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].

Correction(s):
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.