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From The Trenches: How I Attracted Nearly 300 Kids to AP Computer Science

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From the White House to your house, I think we can all agree that we need to do a better of job of attracting students to math and science. We can see in our own communities that kids, especially girls, tend to lose interest in math and science as they grow older – and the evidence backs this up.

For example, 11 percent of the U.S. college-educated population worked in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) jobs as of 2009. Overall, there were almost four men for every woman in these STEM jobs. In particular, women were well-represented in the physical and life sciences (40%), but declined to only 27% of those working in the rewarding and high-opportunity fields of computer science or math.

Looking at the academic plans for first-year college students in 2010, only 1.5% of freshmen intended to major in computer science – far, far below the numbers needed to fill computing jobs.

So what’s a computer science teacher to do? You may think it sounds simple, but I found that by making computer science more accessible and rewarding, students – particularly girls and students of color – felt more comfortable enrolling in my class.

For better or worse, kids today fear failure. So do their parents. Ninth grade parents want to know that enrolling their girls in computer science will not damage their confidence or hurt their GPAs. Kids don’t want to start high school with a class that is over their head, and be buried in work with no chance for an “A” grade. Implementing “Mastery Learning” eases their fears. Under this model, students are helped to master each learning unit before proceeding to a more advanced learning task.

I assure parents that if their child gets a bad grade I will call or email them and figure out what their kid needs to master, and then supply them with additional resources. Once the concept is mastered, I will change the student’s grade. Students build confidence while tackling advanced topics. Everybody wins.

Skill-building challenges such as IBM’s Master the Mainframe Contest are another great confidence booster for students. Unlike many computer science competitions, there are no limits on the number of students that can participate in the contest and there is no luck involved. If you put in the hours, you will be successful. Last year, 220 of my students took part in the competition. More than 70 of them completed the challenging second part of the competition — completing extensive systems programming and application developing tasks along with students from top colleges in the U.S. and Canada. Many of my students cite this as one of their greatest achievements. And their success helps attracts new students to my class.

I started teaching at Lake Brantley High School three years ago. Since then, I have attracted more than 294 kids to my AP Computer Science course. Brantley’s AP Computer Science program is now the largest in the country, and its female and non-white participation exceeds the national College Board Examination average by a significant margin. Last year, only 18 percent of the National Exam test-takers were females or students of color; Brantley more than doubles that at 48 percent.

So, my story is about one teacher’s methods for helping kids find success and fulfillment in the sciences, but it can easily be replicated at a school near you.

Seth Reichelson is an AP Computer Science teacher at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Mr. Reichelson is the 2012 Central Florida Air Force Teacher of the Year and recipient of the 2011 National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Aspirations in Computing Award. Lake Brantley High School is the 2012 IBM North American Mainframe School of the Year.

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