Reflecting on AP Computer Science Principles

Last year, when picking courses, junior Kristy Manaavi saw a new course that combined creativity with coding, two disparate skills that she had never before thought to combine. In the existing programming courses like AP CS A, she did not see the same exciting combination. This new opportunity came in the form of the new course AP Computer Science Principles, which remains a mystery to many at Monta Vista despite the fact that it has been offered for a year now. But with the hindsight of a year, we can look back to learn more about the course and how it enriches the computer science curriculum offered by Monta Vista High School.

One of the immediate difference between AP CS Principles and other programming courses is that AP CS P does not focus on a single programming language. Kritika Maanavi, a senior at Monta Vista, believes that this is a benefit for people who want to take the course but do not have previous programming knowledge.

“The content was more generic, allowing non-programmers to understand it,” Maanavi said. “It also allowed for more variety in the coding projects, as people would construct projects in different formats.”

Mrs. Frazier, the teacher for the course, points out further advantages of the course of APCS P.

“We do not go into depth working with the syntax of a single language,” Frazier said. “[AP CS Principles] does it on a real surface level, but what we add that the Computer Science A students won’t get is the design aspect.”

Mrs. Frazier explains concepts of logic to students Photo taken by Keerat Singh
Mrs. Frazier explains concepts of logic to students
Photo taken by Keerat Singh

In the Principles course, students are only given a prompt for a project, and they need to prove that it meets a need and decide what components of their learning they should integrate into the project. Most of AP CS P focuses on the bigger picture. Rather than going into details about programming languages students learn in-depth ways to test the effectiveness of their projects using statistics.

Even within one year, the different approach to programming and digital innovation has already attracted a new type of student to Monta Vista’s computer science department. “As a kinesthetic learner, the project-heavy curriculum appealed to me a lot[…] As a hands-on learner, I find that the best way to learn is through doing activities, so the information was really solidified through the projects,” Manaavi said. This anecdotal evidence was corroborated by Mrs. Frazier, who said the typical difference between a AP CS P student and an AP CS A student is their learning style.

“In Principles people preferred to work in groups,” Frazier said. “We have many students here at Monta Vista who would prefer to work independently, but that’s not really an option for the group stuff.”

Learning through projects rather than traditional lectures provided an atypical environment for learning that seemed risky at first, but eventually was revealed as a success. “Everyone jumps in with both feet, excited, and they’ve got ideas and they’re not afraid to share them. […] Part of the thing with being creative is that you have to be afraid to take risks and fail miserably and be ok with that, and that’s not what most students at Monta Vista experience day to day,” Frazier said.

APCSP students collaborate to create a graphic. Photo taken by Keerat Singh
APCSP students collaborate to create a graphic. Photo taken by Keerat Singh

Aside from the benefits from expanding the boundaries of their learning, students found other advantages of the interdisciplinary nature of the course. “The artists also have the new experience of using statistics and surveys to  see if their work has an impact beyond just an anecdote, which would be pretty powerful,” Frazier said. Interestingly, this hands-on approach seems to level the playing field of the student’s different backgrounds. While the class is made up of a mix of programming and art students, Mrs. Frazier ran statistical tests last year and found that students’ success with programming was independent of whether they came from a programming course or an artistic course.

With a year’s experience, the class is undergoing some big changes during its second run. For example, Frazier explains that she has asked her TA’s to try out new technology that the class could use.“One of my TA’s right now is working with Alexa. Amazon has their own API for Alexa, and we can program her to do things,” Frazier said. “I have another TA working with R, which is useful for playing around with large amounts of data using statistics and other kind of mathematical relationships.” Analysing large amounts of data makes R perfect for machine learning projects. Mrs. Frazier plans to integrate Alexa and machine learning into the second semester of APCS P, allowing students to play in developing fields with exciting technology they use every day.

The course was proposed with the goal of broadening the students that engage with computer science. By approaching computing through the lens of design and looking at the effects of technology on society, the students have achieved a deeper understanding of their interactions with technology. With the added benefits of student examples and experience from previous years,  the course promises to become even richer in the future.