TORONTO—In 2010, Abril Vela was in 9th grade in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) when the district was in the early stages of implementing its Computer Science for All initiative. Recruited by a counselor into an introductory computer science course, she was intrigued by the content, but felt “extremely out of place.”
Beyond using Microsoft Office and browsing the internet, she couldn’t imagine how computer science would have any place in her future. But now, as a special projects coordinator with the district initiative, she’s working to expand access to computer science for other girls and minorities.
Being a Latina student in the program “has shaped my perspective on what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what we can be doing better,” Vela said Tuesday during a session at the American Educational Research Association conference, which brought together practitioners working to increase equitable access to computer science in K-12 with researchers evaluating those efforts.
Vela said she was lucky enough to have a teacher who recognized that many girls felt uncomfortable in the course, took the time to make the material relevant and provided additional support outside of school hours.
“Computer science encouraged me to experiment, to try and to fail without repercussions to my grade,” she said.
Researchers and nonprofit leaders who are focusing on creating equity for women and minorities in the technology industry are examining structures and barriers “all along the pathway,” from K-12 and into the workforce, said Brenda Wilkerson, who was the first director for computer science in CPS — where the course is now a requirement. She is currently president and CEO of AnitaB.org, a nonprofit that advocates for and supports women in technology. The organization’s work, she said over a phone call into the session, focuses on making sure “we have the right minds solving the problems or even choosing the problems that need to be solved.”
‘Should be a given’
Other efforts to expand computer science opportunities at the high school level include the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) support of the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles course. First available in 2017, the course goes beyond AP Computer Science A, which focuses specifically on the Java programming language.
“Computer science should be a given,” said Jan Cuny, a program director for computing education at NSF. “Computer science touches every part of everyone’s lives.”
Because many K-12 teachers don’t have computer science backgrounds, NSF is also supporting professional development (PD) efforts, such as research-practitioner partnerships that bring researchers closer to the classroom so they can answer “questions teachers really want to know,” Cuny said.
Joanna Goode, a professor at the University of Oregon, is involved in one of those partnerships and is especially examining teachers’ perceptions about race in connection to computer science. In a two-year PD course, she learned that teachers often don’t talk about race unless that is the specific topic of discussion. They might say that if student opts not to take computer science, that it’s just a personal choice. Or, they might take the “colorblind” angle and say they see all students the same.
She further explored teachers’ perceptions on race in regard to a lesson on cornrows — braid styles that can be modeled using software programs. Some admitted skipping over the lesson because they didn’t really think it was computer science. Another said they felt they didn’t have enough time, but didn’t really know they chose to drop that lesson and not another one. But one teacher asked students who had experience with cornrows to share their knowledge, “and it became a fabulous lesson.”
Goode added that computer science teachers also have a role in recruiting students, talking to counselors about the program and making classrooms welcoming. “Our task is not to be in the classroom and teach the students who just show up,” she said.
‘Other sides of students’ lives’
As the director of research for the Computer Science Equity Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jean Ryoo is also seeking to learn more about students’ reasons for taking computer science and what they want to do with those skills. At three sites — the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Mississippi and in the Northeast — she’s especially interested in hearing the voices of girls, students of color, English learners, students in rural areas and others underrepresented in computer science and technology. Repeating themes from other sessions at the conference this year, she talked about viewing students through a “sociocultural” perspective and “not thinking about the student removed from their context.”
She described a student, whom she called Abraham, who initially didn’t show any interest in computer science, but then decided he liked it and was recruited to participate in a hack-a-thon. When he was the only one from his group to show up at the event, he was matched with other students who ended up choosing him as the head programmer. He even won the hack-a-thon and is now thinking about a career in web design.
Ryoo noted, however, that Abraham also is a musician and played a Chopin piece — that he taught himself from YouTube — at a talent show. “He’s a lot more than just computer science,” she said, adding that it’s important to “acknowledge other sides of students’ lives.”
Her research methods include surveys, interviews, observations and even student-made videos. Among 2,400 LAUSD students, 41% taking computer science said they want to learn how to create technology themselves, and about a third said they are interested in creating programs to address social issues, such as mental health, sex trafficking and forced labor, and designing prosthetics for people with physical disabilities.
“They have amazing visions of what they want the world to be,” she said.
Recruiting more students into high school computer science courses, or requiring them to take a course, is also creating challenges for higher education, Cuny said. “Not all students want to be software engineers,” she said, but they no longer want to take only one course in computer science at the college level. Many want to minor in computer science, and colleges and universities are not yet ready to meet the demand, she said.
NSF is now thinking about how you “completely rethink computer science at the undergraduate level,” she said. “Computer science cuts across everything, particularly interdisciplinary work. All these students are taking these courses and loving them. They are going to want more.”