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L.A. Unified makes computer science accessible

A pilot program has increased the number of some minorities taking the subject's AP test, a success that answers Obama's call to emphasize math and science education.

May 21, 2009|Rebecca Cole

WASHINGTON — With President Obama calling math and science education the key to good jobs in our future economy, Congress was told Wednesday that a pilot program in Los Angeles schools has started to show promising results in computer science.

Over the last five years, the program -- which was established in six schools and focused on persuading more students to enroll in computer technology classes -- doubled the number of African American students taking Advanced Placement computer science and tripled the numbers of Latinos and females.

Although only a handful of schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District was involved, researchers said the results were so promising that the program would soon be expanded into 20 more schools.

Joanna Goode, assistant professor of education at the University of Oregon and a co-leader of the program, said the key to changing student attitudes was demonstrating that what seemed like a distant subject was already at the center of their lives.

"Computer science is the iPhone. It is social networking and downloading MP3s," she said. If schools approach the subject as a way to study how technology powers "the things they already do for fun, it is much more effective."

Created in partnership with UCLA and funded by a $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Computer Science Equity Alliance has provided professional development for teachers, student outreach and free educational materials to participating schools.

Calling the effort an "intervention," Goode said the group purposely targeted schools that had underprivileged students of color.

The first hurdle was enticing students who traditionally viewed computer science as a profession for "geeky white guys with pocket protectors" or "people in lab coats," she said. And the key to changing those perspectives was to show them how they already use technology.

Another obstacle was getting schools interested in upgrading their curriculum. "It was not an easy feat," Goode said, because there is no statewide policy that assigns a high priority to computer science.

Nonetheless, the program's success has persuaded officials at the 20 other schools to welcome it, and the alliance has applied for an additional $3 million in funding from the National Science Foundation.

California has more than 6 million K-12 students, but in 2008, only about 3,000 took the AP test in computer science. And although 50% of all California students are Latino, and 8% are African American, only a small percentage of those students were tested last year in AP computer science -- just 8% and 1%, respectively.

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rcole@tribune.com

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