Shark Tank: An Explore PT Practice Task

For the third year in a row, I’ve done a Shark Tank project with my AP CS Principles classes as their Semester 1 final exam. After 3 years of messing around with it, it feels worthwhile enough to share out.

The genesis for this project came from the AP CS Principles Explore Performance Task. When I first taught the course 3 years ago, there weren’t a ton of resources available that helped clarify the task and the rubric. And, the ‘binary’ nature of the rubric was tough for me to think about since I had rarely used a binary rubric for assignments. Was it a research report? Was it a poster presentation? It was tough for me to balance the fact-based / research aspects of it (like the data pieces) with the argumentative pieces (like the beneficial and harmful effects). This was also before the wealth of resources that exist now – there wasn’t a Survival Guide or the released items on the College Board website – so I felt a lot more isolated then than I do now.

In my first year, in an effort to frame this in a relatable way to both myself and my students, I decided to create a practice performance assessment that had many of the same requirements as the Explore PT but framed it as a Shark Tank-style presentation. Students were required to pick a computational innovation and create a speech that described the innovation, the data it uses, any potential data concerns, a beneficial effect, and a harmful effect. They also had to create a visual aide to go along with their presentation, just like they do on Shark Tank. At the time, my thinking was:

  • Writing a speech is less intimidating than writing a research paper, which helps me support students who may struggle in writing or become intimidated by the idea of “write this practice research paper”
  • I would argue there’s an ingrained desire in most students to make speeches short and to the point, which is what is required for the writing piece of the Explore PT – short word limits where you can’t wax poetic. The process of creating a short speech should (hopefully) transfer to the process of creating short written responses.
  • Framing this as a presentation really helped me and my students make sense of why the Explore PT requires a ‘computational artifact’ – thinking of it as a visual aide during a presentation helps clarify what sorts of information should be on the artifact and what it’s designed to communicate.
  • Framing this as a presentation in front of judges helped my students and I understand the binary nature of the rubric – either the judges hear it or they don’t. My hope is this type of mentality would translate into making speeches that are especially clear and almost overbearing in describing what information they’re presenting so the judges know how it connects back to the rubric.
  • Lastly: I knew I didn’t want to give a ‘test’ as the midterm exam in my class, so this presentation / project worked really well as a first semester final performance assessment with my students.

Over the years, the project has evolved to have several judges from our local community and even a few different prizes – you can read more about it here. I give students periodic surveys throughout the year and, on the end of semester survey, several students said it was their favorite activity of the year and said it was the most challenging, which I think is a good sign.

The Details

As a way of introducing this project, I start by having students reflect on all the new things they’ve learned in this class (which is hopefully a lot) then consider all the people out there who aren’t as well versed as they are in all this newfangled technology. Then we watch a few videos of people trying to explain technology to other people – I show snippets of this video explaining how BitCoin works then I show this video from Makerbot about 3D Printing. I use them to make the point that technology has a communication problem – the people who know the most are sometimes the worst at communicating it. The Bitcoin video is too technical while the Makerbot video is too empty and vapid (it says a lot without saying anything at all). I argue that people are inventing amazing things all the time, but they’re probably terrible at explaining what these things do or why the rest of the world should care about them… except for one particular niche of technology presentations. Then I show a clip from Shark Tank demonstrating a pitch that does a good job of talking about technology in a relatable yet knowledgeable way (I like to show the pitches from UniKey or Scholly, but the videos seem appear and disappear on YouTube so I won’t link them here).

Using these as anchors for the rest of the week, I introduce the project via this document and we talk about it for a little bit – wrap our heads around the requirements, the rubric, and the presentation piece. One of the things I like about doing this project is it lets me do some explicit Explore PT prep without them realizing that’s what we’re doing. Case and point: at this point, we do the ‘Is It A Computational Innovation?’ worksheet from the Explore PT Survival Guide (page 2) to wrap up the introduction of Shark Tank and have them think about different innovations for tomorrow.

The next day, I have them do an adapted version of the ‘Rapid Research -Harmful Effects’ worksheet from the Survival Guide (page 4). In my version, students research 3 innovations looking for effects and data and keeping track of their sources. The goal isn’t to settle on one thing in particular, but to have options and practice working under a time constraint (which they’ll need to do in the Explore task). At the end of this day, I have to explicitly tell students that whatever they choose for Shark Tank, they cannot choose for the Explore task. So maybe pick the second choice from your list of researched innovations.

From here on out, students spend several days researching and preparing. I give them the Explore PT Notetaker from the Survival Guide (page 5 – initially from AbstractingCS) and give them tips of what they should be focusing on each day. I give students this presentation to help them think about how to approach their research. It’s helpful for me to think about the research as being in 2 pieces – information and sources that are fact-based, and information and sources that are impact-based. The former requires students to read product websites, visit wikipedia for background info, explanation-videos from the internet, etc – the latter requires students to find news events, opinions from experts, and will probably be more recent than other sources. This was a helpful adjustment I did this year and I think it helped keep students focused on their research days – one day focused on facts and background, the next on impact. At the end of these research days, I have students partner up and do a few ‘speed dating’ sessions explaining their innovation to other people just to practice talking about their research and project so far.

After this, I tell students they’ll be turning in a written version of their speech which is what I’ll actually be grading. I tell them it’s to help relieve the pressure of giving a speech in front of people – if they mess up and forget to say something because they get flustered, but they have it in the speech they turn in, then they can still get points for it – but that’s not the real reason I do this. I know that for the actual Explore task, they’re gonna have to write a paper, so I want them to practice that now. I give them a slightly edited version of the Explore PT Written Response template to use if they want to, but I also give them the option of writing their own speech and turning that in. I also give them this presentation to help focus their energies and to introduce the idea of citing their sources.

This is the first year I gave them the presentation with a whole section on citing sources and it worked so well – this was by far my best year in getting students to use citations correctly. In the past, I always struggled with the right place and time to introduce this method of citing sources within the paper – it always felt I was just yelling at them “MAKE SURE YOU USE CITATIONS!” – but this year, something about having it be self-directed and built-in to the Shark Tank days made it go a lot smoother. I think it also helps that there are now enough samples available from the College Board that I could show some concrete examples of how these would get used.

Throughout all of these days, I’m intentionally being very hands-off – I want to prepare students for the Explore PT work days when I won’t be able to help them at all, so I purposefully try to start modeling that during these days. I’ll answer questions if students ask them, and I’ll ask questions if I think something isn’t a computational innovation, but otherwise I let students work at their pace. Some students struggle, but I know I’ll use these moments as constructive conversations next semester when they approach the actual Explore PT. However, I do have a very active weekend before the actual presentations: over the weekend, I look over everyone’s speeches / written responses and give feedback based on the rubric. Since I’m not allowed to give feedback on the actual Explore PT, I use this moment to give lots of explicit comments and references to the rubric so my students know which sentences or phrases earned them points and which ones didn’t. I try to follow the model that uses in their analysis of the released Explore responses – I’ll highlight sentences that earn the points so students know exactly what’s working in their writing and what needs to be improved. In essence, I’m basically grading most of the presentations early and giving them an opportunity to revise before the actual presentation. My motivation here is less about making sure they do well on the presentation and more about thinking ahead to the actual Explore task – since I can’t give feedback there, I want to make sure I give lots of feedback now so students can make adjustments before the AP exam. It’s a lot of work, but hopefully it’ll pay off in the long run.

For the actual Shark Tank event: our finals days are 2 hours long, so we have lots of time for students to present to the judges. I also rent out one of our larger meeting rooms on campus (the place where we have staff meetings), which happens to have smaller side rooms that branch off from the larger meeting area. This lets me run several presentation rooms simultaneously – you can see some pictures of what this looks like here – which helps me save time and make sure everyone gets to present. This also means I need lots of judges – I try to gather between 10 and 15 judges for the event so I can have between 3-5 judges per room. I reach out to different people at our local university, different STEM outreach groups, and any relevant working professionals I may know in the local area. Since my students’ grade is based entirely on the written response they turn in to me, I make sure to tell the judges that their responses don’t have any bearing on any students’ grade. I think this is really important to make clear to my judges so they feel less pressure to act as a ‘grader’ and instead to act more like themselves and how they would behave as if this were a more professional event, like an interview or academic presentation.

I spend my time in the main room helping to send students to their room when its their turn to present. My students get really nervous, which I like because it means they’re taking it super seriously. I also invite administrators / counselors / etc to visit on this day to act as a friendly face and be ‘practice’ for the students while they wait – they can pitch to these folks before the ‘real thing’. This helps spread the word about my program to my administrators & counselors and helps the students feel less stressed because they’ve got a friendly face in the room they can pitch to. I also try to gather up random swag from different places and use those as makeshift prizes.

Eventually, everyone presents and has time to decompress and make any last-minute edits to their speeches they’re turning in. In the time left at the end of the period, the judges discuss who deserves which prizes and award prizes to different students. This year I didn’t have any time left over for this, but if there was, I would’ve had students and judges all sit together at different tables and have some discussion prompts for them to talk about. There’s lots of research about how personal connections can be super influential in getting students serious about STEM fields, and this event creates an opportunity for that.

And then… that’s it. It’s over. About a week and a half of research & preparing, a day of presenting, and an afternoon of cleaning up. Pretty fun. Here’s a Google Folder with most of the original resources I use for this, plus I use lots of stuff from the Explore Survival Guide.

My Favorite Thing

This year I had 5 copies of the book Girl Code donated to be distributed as prizes under the condition that they be given to female students. I wasn’t totally sure how to distribute these books – do I set up special categories? What criteria should I use? Is it integrated into the other prizes I have? For a while, I wasn’t sure what to do.

Eventually, I realized that I coincidentally happened to have 5 female judges that were participating in this event. So, I told each of these judges that they could give one of these books to any female student they wished for any reason they wanted – but, they had to write that student a personal note explaining why they decided to give them the book. My hope was this practice would implicitly promote some of the research on encouraging & retaining women in STEM fields, especially in creating those meaningful personal connections that can be incredibly impactful.

The result is the picture above, showing several handwritten notes from female scientists & engineers to my female high school computer science students gifting them a book about female high school students who created a viral app. This is by far my favorite outcome of this whole project.


The first year I did the project, I was happy with how well it framed the Explore task to the point where students didn’t feel intimidated or unprepared. Now adays, I think there are enough resources out there for the Explore PT that there are other ways to prepare students for the task – looking at other samples, or other practice tasks from different curriculum providers (for example, I appreciate all the intentional work has done to incorporate performance task practice throughout their curriculum) – but I think I’ll still do this project with my students for the forseeable future. I still really like it as an end-of-semester project; it does a good job of spreading out explicit Explore PT prep without students realizing that’s what we’re doing; and its a super memorable moment for my students in my classes.

Here are some other thoughts:

  • I’m at the point now where I have students who took my class and participated in Shark Tank, have since graduated and are now at different universities, and were able to come back and participate as judges this year. That was kind of a cheesy special moment for me, to see several former students back as judges.
  • My AP class is classified as a CTE (Career & Technical Education) class, but the CTE-aspect definitely isn’t always primary focus for me when I prioritize outcomes and events for this class in particular. But, this event checks off a lot of CTE boxes – I can involve business & industry folks in my classroom and the presentation itself is very transferable to different industry experiences (like interviews or presentations) – so that’s helpful for me in continuing to represent this class as having a CTE focus.
  • Even though this project does a great job of creating a transferable experience to the Explore Task, I need to be more careful about how I frame beneficial & harmful impacts next year. Because students think of this as a ‘pitch’, they want to talk about things like cost or convenience as harms or benefits – which would be totally valid points in an infomercial, but don’t really count for the Explore task. I need to do a better job of explaining that these impacts are more long term and effects more than just you – the bigger picture when considering society, culture, or the economy. This was definitely something I could’ve done a better job of this year.
  • Last year, I did Shark Tank and the Explore PT both in the same semester. This year, I’m doing Shark Tank to end the first semester and the Explore PT to start the next semester. So far, I like this a lot better than doing both in the same semester.
  • Having students pick an innovation for Shark Tank is kind of a double-edged sword – whatever they pick here, they can’t use for the actual Explore PT. There’s that risk that a student will create an amazing project that would have earned full points for the Explore PT, but then they ‘waste it’ on this project instead of the actual Explore PT. In my experience, this isn’t usually what happens. Instead, students will get the experience of picking innovations that are either so recent that they can’t find enough information about the impact of it, or so complex that they struggle to describe what it does, or barely a computer so they struggle explaining how it uses data (lots of medical devices or microscopes fall into this category). I’ve found this leads to a lot of constructive conversations with students when they encounter this – “when you get to the actual Explore PT, maybe watch out to make sure this doesn’t happen there”


One thought on “Shark Tank: An Explore PT Practice Task

Add yours

  1. I’m not sure I agree with “Writing a speech is less intimidating than writing a research paper, which helps me support students who may struggle in writing or become intimidated by the idea of ‘write this practice research paper’.” Many students find giving speeches (even in the environment of a supportive classroom) much more intimidating than writing a paper.

    Both public speaking and writing papers are important skills, but let’s not pretend that one is uniformly less scary.


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