I decided to take Full Stack because I wanted to learn actual computer science skills you can use in the real world.
Full Stack Web Development is a new Westridge Advanced Course that expands the school’s computer science curriculum beyond offerings available in Advanced Placement (AP) program to a level uncommon in high schools today outside of STEM magnet programs.
The course’s approach is more project-based and less prescriptive than the AP curriculum (students learn concepts and then have the freedom to develop projects employing the concepts rather than creating projects matching predefined requirements). And content covered in Full Stack greatly exceeds that of the AP. Students are now responsible not only for front end development, which is what you see when you visit a website, but also the back end, which includes concepts like data management, routing decision structures, and framework architecture.
We spoke with Dan Calmeyer (Computer Science department chair and Full Stack Web Development teacher) and students in the Full Stack course to get their thoughts after the first quarter of this Advanced Course. Seniors Katie E. and Katie S. took AP Computer Science A, the most advanced AP comp sci course, before taking Full Stack this year. Juniors Isabella V. and Elena R. previously took AP Computer Science Principles (the first level).
Katie E.: In AP Comp Sci A we had a lot of projects, but they were like “solve this problem or write the code to do this,” versus this year (in Full Stack) the projects have us use the content we learned to do whatever you want to solve a problem that’s unique to you [...] [in the AP course] it was more like you would learn something that was similar to what you were going to do in the project, and in this course it takes a little bit more thinking about how you connect what we learned in class together and how you change it for what you want to do. There is a little bit more thinking in that, which makes it interesting. You have to understand what you learned to make it do what you want it to do.
Katie S.: The mindset of an AP versus an advanced course like this is very different. In the AP you are chugging along to the end goal of taking the AP test, but the advanced courses bring this different focus where you are caring more about the actual process of learning each individual project rather than doing all of this for one big test.
Dan Calmeyer: I think the best way to encapsulate the change in our approach is that projects have shifted from "your work has to be this" to "your work has to include this" and that really opens up the doors for creativity and collaboration, and all those pieces of deeper learning.
Isabella: I originally planned to take AP Comp Sci A this year because I thought the AP would look good, but I decided to take this class (Full Stack) because I wanted to learn actual computer science skills you can use in the real world.
Katie E.: The project we are working on right now is a cumulative project applying what we have learned throughout the quarter so far to solve whatever problem you have in your life. [...] Although at first, [the opened-ended projects] can feel a little intimidating, once you have your idea it makes it more fun to do the work because it isn’t busy work or an assignment that you are just doing for the class. It’s like, this is something that I would actually like to use that makes my life more convenient or fun. It’s more fun to work on and then, when you have it, you feel very accomplished.
Katie S.: AP projects were a lot more contained, so what you learned was what you were going to use in the project. This year the projects are so broad, and people usually want to do a lot with them, so we have to take what we learned and then Google some new stuff or teach ourselves some new skills and we learn even more that way and gather even more information. You have a broader understanding, I think, in general.
Dan Calmeyer: The most exciting thing for me with my advanced course is the freedom of creativity. We have these amazing kids and if you give them permission to create amazing things, they will create amazing things. I think the AP was actually holding us back from letting students flourish. We were doing a certain curriculum because we had to prepare for these multiple-choice tests, as opposed to having students engaged in complex projects that connect to their interests and asking them to apply and manipulate what they learned in class.
Katie S.: Last year with the AP class there was a set curriculum to get through. But this year there is a lot more flexibility to spend time on a certain area when people are confused, and that way can solidify our understanding. I also like the project format because we learn the content and then we have the project, and that makes sure you have everything down.
Katie S.: Our quarter project is meant to solve personal problems. I have taken guitar lessons for a while, and I have learned a lot of songs so I am creating a database for all the songs that I have learned, and I can store all of my music in there with YouTube links if I need them. It helps motivate you if you are creating something that is actually going to be useful to you.
Other student quarter projects include:
Katie E.: A big difference coming from AP Comp Sci A is that there were a lot of algorithms—or code that does stuff. We are a lot more graphics-based in this class, and it is cool to get to make a website look however you want. The design element is very rewarding.
Katie E.: I think the freedom of not just teaching for the test gives us more space and time to develop creative ideas rather than just having an assignment that you have to do. You get to have the time to think about what you would actually like to do. Full stack takes the most engaging parts of the AP class and expands upon them.
Elena: It’s been fun this year getting to learn stuff that we can actually use and not having to allot so much time to just getting ready for a test. I don’t particularly enjoy APs because it is all leading up to taking a test rather than your own learning and I wanted to shy away from that—especially in comp sci where the test is very particular, so to do well, you have to study for the test rather than study comp sci.
Isabella: This class is really fun [...] we learn how to do different things and then we get to decide what we want to do with what we have learned, and I think that is really cool. It gives us more freedom and we get to learn about the things we want to learn about and go deeper into the things that interests us, and that can be different for everyone. Also, part of the [AP] test last year was a portfolio project and you had to have an allotted period during the school year to work on that, and the rules of the test say the teacher cannot teach you any new stuff or help you while you are working in it. So, we had, like, 10 classes where we couldn’t really do anything because that was the rule of the test. You could only work on your portfolio, but most people finished that very early on.
Dan Calmeyer: Right now, they are working on projects that use what they have learned to solve a personal problem and for their final project of the year they will build a project to solve a problem in the community—the community at Westridge or beyond. For instance, [Ceramics Teacher] Lorri Deyer wants a website that includes all of her past glazing projects that can be sorted and filtered in some interesting ways and the students are already vying to get to do that project. When students leave this class, they could absolutely get paid to build sites or programs for people.
Westridge's Advanced Courses are designed to make rigor come alive in ways that promote deeper learning and the critical thinking skills and habits of mind that colleges and employers are looking for today and for the future. Interested in learning more? Click here.