Art Lopez is a computer science teacher at Sweetwater High, in San Diego, California, and serves as the 9 -12 High School Representative for the Board of Directors for the Computer Science Teachers Association. Not only is he passionate about equitable CS education—he also uses it as an opportunity for students to engage in social justice and anti-bias projects through #UsVsHate. We recently interviewed him to learn more about how he got involved in computer science education, some of his amazing students, and his role in developing the new AP CS Principles course.
We hear you are a CS rockstar for students in CS—can you tell us how you got here?
I’ve been teaching at Sweetwater High for 30 years, and I love the community there. Back in 2011, one of my students came up to me and asked, “Why do these other schools have computer science classes and we don't?” Well, those schools were in fairly privileged areas, whereas Sweetwater is a much more diverse and less well-off community.
I looked at our district of 42,000 students and 13 schools, and not one of them was offering computer science courses. I connected with researchers at UCSD’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment & Teaching Excellence who had been given a grant to design and pilot a CS course, and they invited me to watch them teach a class. Well, I ended up going to all of their classes! I was so inspired, that I got my principal on board, and we piloted a class of 20 students!
You’ve been really instrumental in convincing your district of the importance of CS. What advice do you have for other teachers?
You need to be aware that you may be the only person teaching computer science to those kids. You may not know anything about CS now, but the fact that you’re willing to put yourself out there to change those kids’ lives is what’s important. There are going to be challenges, so you have to be willing to be an ambassador for computer science courses and why they’re so important.
Kids these days are digital natives, so a lot of people my age assume computing isn’t critical for kids to learn. But computing is so much more than consuming technology—kids need to learn how to shape and create it too. Some of the highest-paying jobs in the world are computing, and every industry uses some form of computing. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic (although I wish it never happened!) has highlighted how important computing is and why we all need to know more about it. Hopefully, superintendents are noticing this!
CS needs to be a core curriculum, and I believe California can lead the way. We also need to invest in CS teacher training for all teachers, not just CS teachers. I’m also involved with a project to incorporate CS curriculum into primary grades, and embedding English Learner pedagogy in computer science courses.
Why is equity in CS important to you?
The way I see it, computer science education is a great equalizer. It gives students the power to do whatever it is they want to do, and opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. My community isn’t as well off as many others, and if students in these communities don’t have the same opportunities as everywhere else, the gap is only going to increase further. Women, particularly Black and Latinx, are underrepresented in computer science, so I work hard to increase CS education access for them as students, to get them into computer science careers and majors.
There are so many innovations we’ve seen as a result of computer science—imagine if every student had a quality computer science education from a young age! What kinds of innovation would we see around the world?
You were one of the first teachers of the new AP CS Principles course. What do you love so much about it?
I love the creativity that’s involved—kids don’t realize how creative they have to be in computing when they have to come up with their own idea, and write it into programs and make it work. And I love the fact that it gives them confidence. Computing can be intimidating to begin with, but as they go through the whole year, I see this incredible growth in them that sparks confidence in themselves that they can do this. And that’s really amazing to watch.
What I love about the class is that I can guide them into doing what they want and what interests them. You want their creativity to come forward through whatever it is that engages them. And they learn important lessons and skills throughout the course—collaboration, communication, managing conflicts, teamwork, project management, reading, and writing. Another great thing about the class is that we’re learners together—I’m learning from them as much as they learn from me. And if I make a mistake, they aren’t afraid to call me out on it! It’s truly collaborative.
You’ve been successful in integrating CS in projects for social good. Can you tell us more about your work with #UsVsHate?
Teaching Tolerance provides free resources to K-12 educators to create inclusive school communities where children are respected, valued, and welcome. It also informs our teaching practices to be inclusive as well. Students learn about social justice and anti-bias—they’re encouraged to challenge prejudice and we teach them how to be agents of change in their own lives.
I try to incorporate Teaching Tolerance and their #UsVsHate program into my classes and assignments. I teach my students about social issues because ultimately I want to show them they can make a positive impact in the world at their age through computing. For example, a lot of my students are from immigrant backgrounds or their parents are from other countries. To hear these kids writing stories about the border wall, how it impacted them, and made them feel was really inspiring. It’s a really valuable program and I encourage every teacher to learn more.
Can you give us some examples of how your students have excelled in your classes?
One student Jose, who’s about to graduate in computer science from UC San Diego, started a coding club at a local elementary school. Four years later, we have 48 students from Sweetwater High running coding clubs in 15 elementary schools, with 20 or 25 kids in each club. It’s so amazing because these kids are being exposed to computer science at a young age—around 10 years old—and are wanting to learn more. It’s the best thing I’ve been a part of, and it’s all-volunteer! I say to Jose, “You don’t know what you’ve done to change the lives of these kids in your community!”
If you’re interested in implementing equity-minded computer science courses in your school, district or county, check out our CSforCA Equity Guide.