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AP class set up MHS students for success

AP computer science: a rare find in high schools

Nov. 20, 2012

Mukwonago Area School District - After taking Advanced Placement (AP) computer science at Mukwonago High School last year and passing the AP exam, senior Evan Lamberg is already in computer science classes at Marquette University. Everything he is studying at Marquette is based off what he learned in MHS AP computer science.

"It prepared me well and set me up for success," said Lamberg, who plans to major in computer science.

High schools offering AP computer science are rare in Wisconsin and the nation, mostly because there are not enough teachers with the proper credentials and licensing to teach college-level computer science, said MHS AP computer science teacher Scott Pratt.

He and teacher Jim Ferwerda teach four computer science courses, including a yearlong course in C++ that builds the necessary fundamentals as a prerequisite for the AP course and semester survey courses in Visual Basic and HTML/JavaScript.

"All of these are very rare at the secondary level," Pratt noted.

Adding to the challenge of getting qualified teachers at a secondary level are the rapid changes in technology, he said. With only 30 schools in Wisconsin offering AP computer science courses during 2010-11, 18 of the 200 students enrolled statewide in AP computer science were from MHS.

Conor Sherman, a 2011 MHS graduate, took all the computer science courses offered at MHS. Additionally, through the high school's youth options program, he took two semesters of college courses at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha before heading off to UW-Eau Claire, where he is majoring in computer science and software engineering. Sherman credits Ferwerda, Pratt and the youth options program for preparing him well for college computer science.

Last summer Sherman was able to intern at We Energies in Milwaukee as a first-year college student because he had the computer science experience of a sophomore, which is generally required for internship applications.

"I am planning on returning there over the winter break and again next summer," Sherman said. "With the help of a great computer science program at MHS, I will be able to graduate from UW-Eau Claire in three years."

MHS 2012 graduate Tim Doornek studied introductory Java at UW-Eau Claire and found he was "leagues ahead of everybody else in programming knowledge," Doornek told Ferwerda.

A majority of the people in the class came with no programming experience and were "completely lost" after three weeks of class.

"I would be lost as well if it weren't for the programming classes that you and Mr. Pratt taught throughout my years at MHS," Doornek said in an email to Ferwerda. "However, even those who have experience with Java and with programming in general from high school courses are struggling with the course, while Dylan Howard and I breezing through the class."

Improving offerings

In July, Pratt took part in the PUMP-CS Project, a collaborative effort among computer science faculty at three of Wisconsin's major universities (Marquette, UW-Madison, and UW-La Crosse), the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and secondary school teachers in Wisconsin's nascent Computer Science Teacher Association leadership cohort. The goal of PUMP-CS is to increase the number of qualified computer science teachers offering K-12 courses across the upper Midwest.

Computing and mathematics are among the top 10 fastest-growing occupational groups through 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment projections, with more than 150,000 job openings in computing expected annually.

While computer courses at MHS draw an average of 20 to 50 students, with more taking introductory courses, Pratt and Ferwerda are trying to attract more students - and more girls - to the computer sciences since the job prospective is high in that field.

Students who take the computer science classes offered at MHS come away with two full years of good fundamentals and background in the field. Students learn how to think and problem solve as they study programming.

Every year MHS alumni come back to thank Ferwerda and Pratt for the solid foundation they received in the MHS computer courses.

"While I'm sure the course material will catch up to me eventually, the skills that you nailed into my brain will definitely give me the upper hand over students who haven't had the privilege," Doornek said.

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