Detroit classroom doubles state participation of Black students in computer science

Students in Zach Sweet’s AP Computer Science Principles class

Note: As of September 2020, this post contains outdated language or graphics referencing “underrepresented minorities.” To see our current language policy around race, ethnicity, and gender, see this support article.

Last fall, Detroit teacher Zach Sweet began teaching AP Computer Science Principles — the first computer science course offered at Renaissance High School — with 35 students joining the inaugural class. Of those students, 63% were female, and 100% were underrepresented minorities. In the spring of 2018, his class alone marked a 225% increase in the number of Black students in the entire state of Michigan passing the exam from 2017 to 2018.

Zach wouldn’t really consider himself a technologically minded guy; he took a computer science course in college but continually found himself struggling through it. “And if I’m being honest, I just got a smartphone a year ago.”

But that hasn’t influenced how he approaches teaching or what his students learn. In 2017, Zach headed to Philadelphia to take part in’s Professional Learning Program for teachers interested in bringing computer science to their schools for the first time. And after spending a summer with, his own interest in computer science changed.

When Zach began to teach in the fall, he recruited every single one of his students himself — sophomores who took his freshman geometry class, freshmen recruited from Renaissance’s summer bridge program (a summer program for incoming freshmen), and juniors and seniors from his AP Calculus class.

“I was nervous about teaching the class, but I thoroughly enjoyed this model where teachers are the lead learners, and students are given an opportunity to explore and test the waters and figure out answers for themselves. Within a couple of days, any fear I had was definitely gone.”

He also found a lot of support from his school as he began to teach computer science. Renaissance High School is a National Math and Science Initiative school which provides training and support for teachers and students, to make sure that everyone has the resources they need to be successful. Zach also credits Albert Lee, a Microsoft TEALS volunteer in his classroom, with having a huge influence on his students and success. Albert volunteers at Renaissance High School and shows students that they can succeed in the tech industry.

His students loved getting the opportunity to collaborate and learn from other people’s ideas. “At one point during the year, my students compared the class to an art class — they felt like they had a lot of room to use their own creativity and felt like they could express themselves through computer science.”

Zach surveyed his students and their approach and impressions of computer science before the course, in the middle, and at the end of the year. The change his students went through was evident. “By the end of the year, 100% of my students said that they agree or strongly agree that anyone can learn computer science. Attitudes totally shifted. They went from apprehensive to really really enjoying it.” Kendrell — one of Zach’s students — said students should, “take advantage of this class that not many other schools have.”

Mr. Sweet’s students created a video to help other students decide whether they should take AP Computer Science Principles.

At the start of the course, Zach set the precedent that it’s okay to be uncomfortable and out of your comfort zone when learning. So all year long, students had been practicing how to push through challenges. Whether it’s working collaboratively, asking for help, or brainstorming ideas, students learned not only computer science, but that challenge is good. “You have to build a culture of safety, a culture of risk-taking being welcome, feeling safe enough to take risks, and share mistakes. There are multiple ways to solve problems, and this class really helped enforce that.”

His recruiting efforts and approach to teaching computer science have resulted in an incredible impact on computer science diversity in Michigan. This year, 33 of his 35 students took the AP Computer Science Principles exam — 27 students passed. Of the 27 students who passed, 26 were African-American, and 1 was Latino. In 2017, only 11 Black students in the whole state of Michigan took an AP Computer Science Principles exam and eight passed.

But the more remarkable legacy of Renaissance High School’s first computer science class is in the discovery students make about the possibilities in their future. This upcoming fall, one of Zach’s students plans to attend Harvard — and another to attend Spelman — with both girls planning to study computer science.

“I think if you want to make a change in equity, you have to actively try. There’s a complete underrepresentation of both female and minority students in computer science at universities and in the career field and we really want that to change. My teaching philosophy is if you hold students to high expectations, they’ll always rise to those expectations. Teachers should never put barriers on students.”

The word about this class has gotten around; 82 students have already registered for this upcoming school year. Looks like Renaissance High School students are primed to break records once again.

This is part of our ongoing “Profiles in CS” series, where we sit down and chat with people making a difference in their communities through computer science.

Give every student the opportunity to learn and bring computer science to your school.

Maggie Osorio,

Know someone we should chat with? Drop me a line!® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.

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