• Carolina MIlanesi

Amazon Partners With Code.org To Launch Equity-Minded Advanced Placement Computer Science Programmin

Amazon announced a $15 million donation from its Amazon Future Engineer program to nonprofit Code.org to support the development and launch of a new equity-minded Advanced Placement computer science programming curriculum. The new curriculum will teach students the same tools and concepts as the existing AP Computer Science A (AP CSA) course, but it will do so in an inclusive way that considers the cultural perspectives, interests, and experiences of Black, Latino, Native American (BLNA), and students of other underrepresented groups. The program's goal is to grow the number of participants in the program and ultimately increase the number of students from under-represented groups who will pursue a career in engineering.

According to the College Board, the nonprofit organization that oversees the AP program and the SAT admissions test, Black students who take the Advanced Placement Computer Science A (AP CSA) exam are seven times more likely to study computer science in college. In 2020, while Black students made up 15% of the U.S. student body, they comprised only 3.5% of AP CSA exam takers—down from 3.9% in 2019 and mostly flat for several years.

A study released by the College Board in December 2020 points to the success that the new makeup of the AP computer science principles course introduced in 2016 has had among Black and Latino students compared to the old coding curriculum dating back to the late 80s. The course is much more relatable to students as it covers real-life topics such as the internet and cybersecurity and computing programming and other core concepts. In 2020, female students accounted for 34% of those who took the introductory exam, compared to 25% of those who took the older test. Among those who took the introductory test, 7% were Black students, 18% Hispanic or Latino and 22% of Asian descent. The shares were 3% Black, 11% Hispanic or Latino and 33% Asian for the older test.

Although progress should always be celebrated, the reality is that the pace of progress needs a strong acceleration if we want Black and Latino students to pass APCS exams at a proportional rate to their representation in the overall population. With this program, Amazon is setting out to double the amount of BLNA students taking the AP CSA course within five years of the course's launch. This would put the new curriculum at a similar adoption pace to the new APCS program. "To achieve these results," explains Dr. Shanika Hope, Head of Amazon Future Engineer, U.S., "Amazon and Code.org are taking a culturally responsive approach to the curriculum. Data has shown that failing to identify themselves in the curriculum is a major contributor to students' lack of interest in pursuing STEM-related courses."

Dr. Hope is absolutely correct regarding the impact that the lack of mirrors in education can have on students. Paraphrasing Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at The Ohio State University: when students cannot see themselves reflected in the stories they read, the scenarios that are painted, or when the images they see are distorted or negative, it is challenging to drive engagement. A report published by Pew Research Center in 2018 showed that most Black and Hispanic employees working in STEM in the U.S. felt that the primary underlying reasons for underrepresentation in STEM are rooted in the lack of educational opportunities. At the same time, around a third of all panelists attributed the underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic employees in STEM to these groups not believing in their ability to succeed in these fields because of lack of encouragement (34%), the lack of role models that looked like them in these fields (32%).

The Code.org curriculum will center on four areas to drive equity:

Considering cultural references and learning styles, including vocabulary, visuals, and the sequence of concepts taught. The curriculum will use Culturally Responsive Teaching pedagogy strategies such as call-and-response techniques to reinforce learning and gauge understanding. Several studies have shown that call-and-response can be effective in teaching African American students. An early study that examined how African American English-speaking first graders were taught to read (Piestrup, 1973) found that students taught with African American discourse strategies, including call-and-response, achieved higher reading scores on standardized achievement tests.

Acknowledging the diversity of experiences and interests is essential to equity. Students will investigate real-world problems during class activities making connections to their work. No assumptions will be made about students' cultural backgrounds or life experiences.

Adopting a "Software Engineering for All" narrative. Using videos showcasing diverse presenters who work in technology will create mirrors and help students visualize opportunities for their careers as software engineers.

Develop real-world career skills. In addition to skills like tracing code segments and documenting code, the new curriculum will incorporate collaboration and career skills code reviews, a widely used quality assurance practice in the technology industry.

This new curriculum for AP CSA already has support from significant stakeholders. State leaders from Georgia, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have pledged to expand AP CSA during the 2021-22 school year and committed to requiring all high schools in their states to offer computer science. This is excellent news given the acceleration towards digital transformation we have seen over the past twelve months. Whether or not students will consider a STEM career, they will undoubtedly require skills like problem-solving, data analytics and coding.

"We are building a curriculum that encapsulates instructional activities, exercises and conversations that demonstrate respect and acknowledge the fact that there are diverse voices and professionals that are part of this culture of tech," says Dr. Hope. College Board will review the curriculum before going through a beta period in the fall of this year and then it will fully launch and be made widely available in the fall of 2022.

Culturally sensitive curricula should be a standard across all school subjects and grades. Starting with an area such as computer science, where the adoption of an inclusive curriculum will translate not only in more engaged students but in a diverse tech world, is an excellent start. Let's hope that education boards will follow suit so that no student should feel like writer Austin Channing Brown who wrote: "Like many Black students in predominantly white schools if I wanted to see myself reflected in the curriculum, I had to act on my behalf."

Disclosure: This article was originally published on Forbes.com

The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.

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