UTeach project-based instruction pays off for students in AP Computer Science Principles

UTeach project-based instruction pays off for students in AP Computer Science Principles


UTeach is a program to prepare STEM teachers at universities. It began at UT Austin 20 years ago, and has been adopted by 45 other universities across the country.

UTeach is best known for increasing the number of STEM majors who decide to teach, and because its graduates stay in teaching. However, UTeach courses have a focus: UTeach teachers learn to employ inquiry and project-based instruction in their classrooms. This means an instructional style where student questions and interests play an important role in how they learn the material.

Recently, the UTeach Institute partnered with the Computer Science department at the University of Texas at Austin to apply these same approaches to the design of a complete high school Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles curriculum, UTeach CS Principles. It introduces students to big ideas in the field of computer science using authentic, project-based learning approaches. Doing the course this way means believing in the power of student motivation to drive learning, rather than focusing each day on passing the exam.

Project-based learning can be challenging for teachers as well as students. That’s why UTeach provides in-person and online intensive professional learning workshops for course instructors, personalized implementation support, and a web-based community of practice where UTeach CS educators nationwide can share resources and suggestions. UTeach CS credits its brand of comprehensive teacher development, support, and community building with helping teachers to successfully transition to a project-based classroom.

Results are in and the project has paid off. Around 100 classrooms piloted UTeach CS Principles in 2016–17, the first year the College Board offered the AP CSP exam. Overall, 83% students in UTeach CSP passed—earning at least a score of 3 out of 5—versus 74% in the nation.

An explicit aim in developing UTeach CS Principles was to broaden participation in CS among girls and other traditionally underrepresented students, and those groups also outperformed their peers across the country. Female and male students did equally well in UTeach CSP, with 83% passing, while nationally only 70% of females passed. Among underrepresented minority students, 15% more passed if they took UTeach CSP. At the same time, the percentage of female students and underrepresented minorities enrolling in UTeach CSP were nearly the same as the percentage enrolling nationally.


“It’s great to see the instructional principles that motivate UTeach working out in this way,” says Michael Marder, UTeach co-founder and Physics professor at UT Austin. “We want to broaden the community of students who have the chance to enter fields like computer science. We want students to see that science and math are subjects that let them be creative, not just get right answers. The good news is that a project-based course that lets students learn the material while they follow their own interests attracts a greater range of students and leads to higher test scores as well.”

UTeach is part of the national CSforAll movement, committed to the belief that all students benefit from instruction in computer science. CS develops critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity—skills that are critical across all subjects. Says Kimberly Hughes, Director of the UTeach Institute, “We are further committed to the benefits of expanding and diversifying the computing workforce, and that work begins in K–12 classrooms. While this initiative is still pretty new, we have been encouraged by overwhelmingly positive feedback from the teachers implementing our course. These results tell us that we are on the right track, but we know that we still have a lot of work to do to increase participation by students from diverse backgrounds and to further narrow achievement gaps. We are more energized than ever to further expand and improve this work.”

In addition to providing traditional classroom curriculum, the UTeach Institute partners with Edhesive.com to make UTeach CS Principles available in a blended learning format. This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (grant #1543014), and also by Infosys Foundation USA and DonorsChoose.org. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed are those of UTeach Computer Science and do not necessarily reflect the views of supporters.

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