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August 24, 2015

Expand Student Diversity & Participation in Computer Classes

While most Advanced Placement Computer Science teachers struggle to fill their classroom with enough students, Seth Reichelson has trouble keeping them out.

“I have 38 computers and six classes, and they’re all full,” he explains. “In fact, I have a waiting list.”

If you do the math, you’ll find that comes to 228 students, making his AP CS program at Lake Brantley High School near Orlando one of the largest in Florida and in the nation.

What’s more, the class is well attended by minorities and girls of all races, which swims upstream against a national trend of low participation in computer science by these groups. Participation in AP Computer Science is even slimmer. In 2013 two states, Mississippi and Montana, didn’t have a single African American, Hispanic or female of any race take the AP exam.

Seth has been honored by the White House, IBM, the Air Force and a number of STEM educational associations for his innovative approaches to computer science teaching.

Recently I met with Seth to discuss in detail how he recruits students and teaches. In fact, I even asked him to present to me the same two-week assignment on Java coding that he typically teaches to his class. I recorded it all on video, so you can learn as I learned.  

Though Seth definitely employs his own brand of magic in the classroom (more on that later), for the most part his astounding success is due to a few very simple best practices that he applies year after year. He’s been teaching for 18 years and teaching AP Computer Science the past ten years, so he’s had time to hone his tools.

Rather than focus on recruiting the top students in his school, Seth insists that “any student can learn computer science. It might take one student three times longer to learn a principle, but once they’ve got it, it’s gotten,” he says. “They won’t forget it.”

There are no math prerequisites for Seth’s classes. “The math you need to do AP Computer Science is to be able to divide by three and get the remainder. And to count, starting at zero.”

That’s it?

“That’s it,” he insists.  

Seth leaves no variable unreferenced in order to find students for his courses. Glee Club. Women’s Lacrosse. Student Government. Even the Knitting Club. “Basically, any club that wouldn’t have me as a member, I recruit from,” he self-deprecatingly boasts.

Usually it’s word of mouth that works best. In order to keep that word positive, he makes sure that his classes don’t alienate the very students he’s trying to make feel comfortable.

For example, the girls in Seth’s classes aren’t bombarded with sci-fi imagery on the walls. When he addresses the class as a whole, it’s never with “you guys.” Even the variable names in the code he writes are gender neutral — or just the names of his dogs, Benji and Novack the Third.

Assignments aren’t about boy or girl stuff, per se. In fact, the first assignment the students tackle is called, “Bunny Bears Having a Party Using Turtles.” A more technical name might be: “Instantiating Objects and Using Methods in Java,” but “Why would I make the first assignment in the class really intimidating,” says Seth.

Something else about that first assignment: It happens to be extremely visual. Though the lessons for the assignment are definitely all about coding in Java, the output of the programs are drawings and photographs manipulated by the students. It’s fun—and it makes it easier for Seth, at a glance, to see if a student is understanding each step of each lesson.

This touches on another important aspect of Seth’s class. Before a student can go on to the next step, she has to master the step before it. What this means is that—with a little persistence—a student can turn an F on a quiz into an A. “That way the parents aren’t coming at me saying, ‘Why didn’t my son or daughter get a bad grade?’ If that happens, I can say, ‘Here are some additional resources. If you can figure this out—and I’ll help you figure it out—you can earn an A.’ ”

I had Seth took me through “Bunny Bears Having a Party Using Turtles,” and I could see why Seth’s class is so popular. In these early lessons, Seth treats each and every Java command as part of an important spell that unlocks incredible, hidden magic. When the “new” command is typed, he literally reaches into a bag and throws puffy colored balls into the air.


“I used to use glitter, but it made the cleaning lady upset with me,” he says. 

Why all the theatrics? Because coding is pretty mysterious if you’re not familiar with how it works. So much goes on in the background, that Seth works hard to help the students visualize what’s happening behind the code.

After two weeks in the course, it’s rare that a student drops. In fact, Seth will usually be approached by additional students, drawn by word of mouth, asking to enroll.

Seth doesn’t assume a student has his own computer at home, and none of his assignments require it.

“None of my assignments requires a student work at home on a computer,” he says. “A student may tell you they have a computer, even when they don’t.”

That said, students who want to go the extra mile are welcome to do so. Many do.    

For example, most of Seth’s students stay after school to learn IBM’s Master of the Mainframe curriculum, which upon completion earns them a job interview. Several of his students have gone on to work at Big Blue, in addition to Google and Microsoft.

“We need a diverse set of students,” Seth says. “One of my problems is this predetermined stereotype of what computer science is. It’s not calculus. You have to know 40 words maybe. And after the first few weeks students are like, ‘I can do this.’”  

Creating IT Futures is developing an on-demand webinar for computer science teachers to show Seth’s Bunny Bears Having a Party Using Turtles lesson and other teaching tricks Seth uses to grow his classroom and student diversity. Look for the webinar to be posted soon.