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Computing success

By Menaka Fernando

March 9, 2005 9:00 p.m.

At a time when the campus is mostly devoid of the buzz of UCLA
students, a different buzz could be heard from the labs of Boelter
Hall ““ the slight humming of over 20 computers on an early
Saturday morning.

In front of the monitors were some of the brightest students and
teachers from Los Angeles-area high schools, engaging in an
advanced computer programming lesson from campus faculty. Speaking
in programming jargon like “java,”
“algorithms” and “selection sort,” computer
science seemed like second nature to the diverse group of students
and teachers filling the lab.

But for many of these Los Angeles Unified School District
members ““ most from a minority ethnic background ““ this
is the first year they are tackling high-level computer programming
and the first time they feel the ominous threat of the Advanced
Placement Computer Science exam looming in the near future. Several
members of the UCLA community have recently become involved in
researching and rectifying the problem they see in the lack of
underrepresented and female students going into the field of
computer science.

The students and faculty from LAUSD came to campus Saturday for
a four-hour computer science lesson, part of the AP Readiness
program instituted by UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and
Information Studies to help high school students prepare for AP
exams in various subjects. The exams are taken by over a million
people worldwide and allow students to demonstrate college-level
achievement that sometimes fulfills university requirements.

Four such review sessions in computer science are planned on
campus before students take the AP exam.

Saturday’s session was also a tangible measure of the
success achieved by the collaboration of UCLA’s Department of
Education and School of Engineering and Applied Science with LAUSD
in an attempt to increase the number of women and underrepresented
minority students taking AP computer science courses.

Other tangible successes are the numbers by which participation
in advanced computer courses increased in the Los Angeles district
since the program began last summer: The number of schools offering
AP computer science courses doubled from 11 to 22 (out of a total
57 high schools in LAUSD), the number of female students tripled,
Latina/o students tripled and black students doubled.

The numbers are a pleasant surprise, says Jane Margolis, a
researcher in the UCLA Department of Education and co-founder of
the training program, but warns that the biggest challenge still
lies ahead.

“The challenge now is to sustain this over time and to
assure success for students, to assure principals, counselors and
school districts will provide the support that is needed,”
she said. “It is clear that this is the type of issue that is
going to take collaboration.”

And it was the initial collaboration between UCLA and LAUSD to
which many of the program’s participants give credit for the
program’s success.

The program used UCLA resources to train about 25 LAUSD teachers
with an interdisciplinary approach to computer science, the
program’s founders said. Its participants also applied for a
$1 million grant from the National Science Foundation last Friday
to expand the institute in the future.

While training teachers, Margolis said it was important to
communicate to them that computer science can be used in a variety
of fields, ranging from biology to theater arts.

Two seniors from Hollywood High School, where AP Computer
Science is being offered for the first time, said the course is
more difficult than they expected and more difficult than other AP
courses they have taken.

It’s especially hard because it “requires both
memorization and application,” said senior June Wui.

And because the odds are against her, senior Jennifer Barraza
said she is inspired to work harder.

Research done by Margolis and the director of the
teacher-training institute, Joanna Goode, showed that high-level
computer science courses were not offered in schools with high
levels of students of color, instructors did not have sufficient
background in the subject, and teachers were often pressured to
focus on testing in reading and math to comply with federal
standards, Margolis said.

Their conclusions prompted them to take an active role in
rectifying what they perceive as an achievement gap in women and
underrepresented minority students in the computer science
field.

“We are not just researching and sitting back,” says
Margolis, who refers to her work as “action
research.”

According to the “AP Report to the Nation” published
by the College Board this year, only 15 percent of AP Computer
Science exam takers were female in 2004. While the percentages of
some minority test takers were also low, overall minority
participation in AP exams last year was closer to being reflective
of U.S. high school demographics, according to the report.

Though much progress has been made in the last five years,
“gaps between white, Asian and traditionally under-served
minority students call for ongoing efforts to invest in the
preparation of students in their middle school and early high
school years,” the report states.

Vijay Dhir, dean of the engineering school, agrees that the low
percentage of women and underrepresented minority students at the
college level is a problem inherited from K-12 education. Only 16
percent of first-years and 17 percent of transfers in the incoming
class of engineers at UCLA are women.

To address this problem, Dhir plans to institute an
“Engineering and Science Corps” program next fall in
which UCLA undergraduate and graduate students in the school of
engineering would mentor LAUSD elementary, middle and high school
students in math and science.

“The key thing here is that we have to do quite a bit of
outreach, we have to start with elementary school,” Dhir
said. “Students should be able to see what opportunities that
science and engineering can offer.” Learning the ropes

Deepa Pai, the computer science teacher at David Starr Jordan
High School in Watts, says she had a difficult time convincing the
school’s administration that an AP Computer Science course
was necessary at a school that emphasized technical skills over
critical thinking skills.

But with her training through UCLA’s program, she said she
was confident in her ability to teach the subject and convinced the
school to include the course in the curriculum this year for the
first time.

Pai’s AP course consists of three male students and three
black students; the rest are female or Latina/o. The school,
situated in a high-crime neighborhood, is comprised of a 77 percent
Latina/o and 23 percent black student body.

Though the course was instituted, Pai said the school does not
provide students with textbooks. Instead, she teaches the course
using copies of books she bought on her own and material from the
course’s Web site.

Pai said her students lacked motivation at first and were too
nervous to come to UCLA on Saturday.

But “I told them what I saw (at UCLA) and what they are
capable of and some students felt really confident,” she
said, adding that at least a few students would come to campus this
Saturday.

The leap in computer science education, which some UCLA faculty
hoped LAUSD schools would make, is apparent in Pai’s
schedule.

Her sixth period class teaches about 30 students computer basics
““ such as word processing skills.

In contrast, her fourth period is dedicated to preparing about
15 eager students to succeed in computer programming, utilizing
some of the skills taught by UCLA’s program.

On Tuesday afternoon, students in the beginning computer course
were learning spreadsheet computation on Microsoft Excel, with some
of them saying they had never used a computer before taking the
basics course. It is often the emphasis on technical courses over
critical-thinking courses in schools with high minority populations
that result in the lack of these students going into the field of
computer science, Margolis said.

And with the institution of the new AP Computer Science course
at Jordan, many beginners have high aspirations to take advantage
of the opportunity at hand.

Freshman Aminah Marshall said she would be interested in taking
the AP course once she got the basics down.

Still, “I need a whole heck of a lot of help,”
Marshall said.

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Menaka Fernando
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