It’s no secret that tech has a diversity problem.
The big-name Silicon Valley companies that release their staffing figures every year often seem embarrassed to do so, because their workplaces are not inclusive or representative of the larger population even after those companies vocally commit to changing the status quo.
And every year, we argue over the same question: Why don’t firms like Yahoo, Facebook, and Google hire more women and people of color?
Hadi Partovi, CEO of Code.org, a nonprofit that works to create more diversity in tech, believes there’s finally one promising solution within reach.
That would be a popular new Advanced Placement course called Computer Science Principles. It debuted in classrooms nationwide last year as a broader introduction to computer science. Instead of focusing narrowly on programming, as the traditional course and exam do, CS Principles teaches subjects like networking, big data, cybersecurity, and app development.
“The traditional AP exam is if you want to become a coder,” Partovi says. “The new exam is if you want to become a well-educated, well-rounded person.”
It also has the potential to fundamentally change what’s known as the “pipeline problem,” or what tech companies describe as the difficulty of recruiting underrepresented applicants out of college and into tech jobs because they comprise a minority of graduates with a degree in computer science.
After just one year in high schools, the course more than doubled the number of female and underrepresented students who took a computer science AP exam. In 2016, only 12,642 female students took the traditional exam. This year, that number trended upwards as it has in previous years, and an additional 15,028 female students took the new test.
Similarly, the participation of “underrepresented minorities,” which includes African American and Hispanic students, increased by nearly 170 percent from 2016 to 2017, with 13,024 students taking the new exam. Seventy percent of students received a passing score on the CS Principles test.
Partovi expected a surge in the number of students taking the new AP course and exam, but he was “ecstatic” to see participation in computer science at the high school level skyrocket.
He credits that partly to the course’s widespread appeal. It’s a modern take on computer science that relates to the internet and app development, even requiring students to submit a portfolio of app projects in order to complete the exam.
Code.org, along with other educational organizations, helped develop the curriculum for the course and has trained teachers with no computer science background how to teach the material in their classrooms.
Partovi is hopeful that the new AP course and exam will encourage more female and underrepresented students to pursue computer science in college and in their careers. That shift could be evident within four to five years as the first crop of students finishes their bachelor degrees and enters the job market.
Whether or not that can help reduce the so-called pipeline problem is a controversial subject. Many critics believe the challenges to diversifying tech’s ranks have more to do with a culture that is unwelcoming or dismissive of people whose backgrounds and experiences don’t match the stereotype of the brogrammer in a hoodie.
Partovi believes that both insular culture and pipeline challenges are at the heart of why tech companies haven’t improved at hiring more diverse employees. If the AP course and test give young students the confidence and knowledge to stick with computer science in college when they might not have otherwise done so, it will make an important difference.
“The trend is in the right direction,” says Partovi.
That’s good news that the tech industry and those who hope to join it one day desperately needs.