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With grant, UA leads way in computer science

Jon Vincent

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Inspired by Alabama state students’ poor performance on computer science-based exams, a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow high school teachers across the state to work with University of Alabama students and faculty to provide higher-quality instruction.

In 2011, only 100 computer science advanced placement exams were taken throughout the state and 46 percent of students scored a one or a two.

Jeff Gray, associate professor of computer science at the University, feels the issue lies in unfair expectations of high school teachers.

“Applying the current AP training model for new computer science teachers is similar to asking a teacher with no mathematics background to initiate a new Calculus AP course with just one week of training,” Gray said. “This situation would seem absurd to most administrators, but it is the common expectation for promoting new AP computer science courses.”

However, Gray has a plan. This coming summer, he’ll begin offering teachers from across the state the opportunity for computer science training and one-on-two mentoring from “teacher leaders,” who have already had success in their computer science classes.

By year three, the program is proposed to have created 50 computer science teachers and have led to 1,350 more students taking computer science classes around the state.

Gray’s plan is made possible by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, along with a partnership with the Alabama Department of Education and A+ College Ready. A+ College Ready leads a statewide effort to improve AP test scores across Alabama.

The grant will also allow the University to offer high school students the opportunity to attend computer science summer camps, weekend study sessions in the weeks leading up to the AP test in May and a state competition.

Beyond high school students, students at the University will also have the opportunity to learn and help.

“The grant has funding to support many UA students over the course of three years.,” Gray said. “Primarily, there is full-time support for a PhD student who will assist in the planning and design of course materials that will be shared with the high school teachers.

“Additionally, there are several positions each year for undergraduates to assist with the project. We would like to fund undergraduates not only in computer science, but also in secondary math and science education to form a team that shares and learns from each other. In particular, the pre-service education students will be equipped with the knowledge to then teach this course in the high schools where they are later employed.”

Derek Duncan, a freshman majoring in electrical engineering, is excited about this prospect.

“The AP Computer Science Exam changed the way I approach problems by making me look at the step by step process in addition to looking at the big picture,” Duncan said. “This helped me greatly in classes such as statistics and calculus, where math becomes more than A plus B equals C. I challenge high school students to take the class, and I would love to be there with them when they learned.”

Gray is currently also working with College Board and the University of Wisconsin to develop course materials for a new computer science principles AP test.

“For the past decade, Alabama has been near the bottom of participation in the current Computer Science AP Exam,” Gray said. “The potential for impact that this new grant offers is the chance for Alabama to emerge as one of the nationwide leaders in the new AP exam that is being planned by the College Board [to be released in 2015]. This grant will provide the funding needed to train nearly 50 high school teachers across the state in computer science at a more rigorous level than OVERSET FOLLOWS:currently offered.”


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With grant, UA leads way in computer science