Increasing equity and inclusion in computer science education

Last month I attended my first CSTA conference. I LOVED the positive energy. From the keynote speakers to the exhibition space to the breakout sessions, everyone at CSTA2018 seemed genuinely happy to be together and they were clearly excited to share, learn, and ultimately do more for students.

My favorite part of CSTA2018 was the session with Andy (Andrea) Gonzales. In short, while in high school, she and a friend created a viral video game, won a Webby Award, wrote a book, were covered by multiple media outlets and now she is on a full ride scholarship to both UNC Chapel Hill and Duke. Impressively, she’s determined to leverage her space in the spotlight to do more for other young women like herself.

Andy talked about the exclusion she felt as a young woman learning computer science. She shared that the early support of an adult (her male summer camp counselor) was key to her success today. She described the misconceptions she had about computer science and the stereotypes that so many other young women and women of color struggle with. She emerged from her experiences more empowered and now wants to empower others.

Andy and her story are impressive. And yet, the thing that struck me the most about Andy was the response she garnered from the adults in the room.

Nearly all the questions Andy fielded from the audience of 700+ computer science education teachers and advocates were about they could do more to support girls and students of color in their computer science classes. How can I get more girls to join? What do you think I can do differently? Of the few girls I have in my computer science classes, how can I get them to engage more? How do I best support my students of color?

These questions clearly articulated the teachers’ desire to do more to help ALL their current or potential CS students succeed. They also illustrated the gaps that exist for teachers to find – and then implement – the resources that would help them reach this goal.

To be clear, I am not an expert on this topic. And in full transparency, I work for a tech company that is actively working on how it makes progress on diversity, equity and inclusion internally and how it can play a role in increasing equitable access to computer science education around the world.

I do know that there is a lot of good and important work that has been done on equity and inclusion in education broadly, and specifically in math and science. And while we are making progress, and there is a lot of great research on what the issues and challenges are in diversity, equity and inclusion in computer science, what I hear from teachers and others in CS education is that we still have work to do to make practical solutions easy for teachers to bring to life, specifically for computer science.

I know that by sharing a short list of resources, I am bound to leave things out. But with the goal to start somewhere, as I’ve been on my learning journey, others have told me that the following resources and information have been helpful in their work to support success for all students in their computer science classes and programs.

I’m sure you have some you want to share – please do! Post them on Twitter, tagging @csteachersorg with the hashtag #CSforAll so others can see them too. You can view all posts that use these two tags here.

Defining the issues:

Practical tools and resources for teachers and schools:

Recent blog posts by fellow CSTA board members:

Yvonne Thomas
Partner Representative CSTA Board

A Call to Celebrate Diversity in Computer Science

A primary goal for our #CSforAll initiative should be to develop positive computational identities among all students. This requires that students not only build strong foundational knowledge and skills; they must also understand how CS connects to their interests and, perhaps most importantly, believe that they can succeed in CS.

This is challenging because a small subset of the population has dominated the field of computer science, and our society has crafted a pervasive and narrow stereotype for who has access to and can achieve in CS. Even though the field is actually more diverse, these stereotypes are not surprising given the mostly homogenous population of the tech industry (see the Kapor Center’s Leaky Tech Pipeline report, 2018).

It is critical that we disrupt this narrative. We must highlight how people of all backgrounds have positively contributed to computing in diverse ways.

Describing the problem

Students as young as elementary school begin to adopt stereotypical beliefs in STEM. Research has shown the negative impact on students traditionally underrepresented in CS, namely women and people of color (e.g., Cheryan, Master, & Meltzoff, 2015). Professor Sapna Cheryan notes:

“People use these images to decide where they fit, where they’re going to be successful and what’s appropriate for them to pursue.”

Stereotypes negatively affect students’ interest, self-efficacy, career aspirations in STEM (e.g., Shapiro & Williams, 2011). If students do not fit those stereotypes and they don’t have role models that suggest otherwise, they are less likely to pursue CS.

What can we do about this?

Such a wicked problem cannot be fixed quickly, but we can make substantive impacts in our local schools. One strategy is to connect students to role models and mentors with whom they can identify, to provide inspiration and guidance. Exposure to role models of similar race and gender backgrounds leads to increased identification, self-efficacy and aspirations in STEM fields (Stout et al., 2011; Scott et al., 2018).

How to celebrate diversity in CS

Teachers can provide exposure to diverse role models through books, videos, and magazines and also through direct interactions including classroom visits, field trips, career fairs, and mentorship programs. These efforts should happen throughout the year. In addition, during cultural awareness months, we can use the opportunity to highlight people of specific backgrounds. March is Women’s History Month. This presents a great opportunity to connect students to female role models and showcase the incredible contributions of women in CS. Below are some suggestions from the #CSinSF team:

  1. Invite guest speakers to your class. If you don’t have connections through friends and family, try finding a local volunteer or a Skype connection. Here are some tips for classroom volunteers and a list of suggested questions to ask about their careers.
  2. Explore careers. Great videos featuring diverse professionals are available from Made w/ Code, Technolochicas, and You can also have students read articles from the Careers with Code magazine, designed for teens to understand how computer science can help them create a dream career in any field, including health, sports, business, fashion, and virtual reality. The site features both profiles and videos of diverse people in diverse industries.
  3. Showcase influential figures in CS. Read books, watch videos, and lead activities that showcase influential figures in computing. For example, during Women’s History Month, hang these posters of seven incredible women in CS and lead related activities (e.g., matching activity, Bee-Bot challenges, Kahoot). Elementary teachers could read story books like Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science and Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code and show videos like Happy Birthday, Ada. Additionally, teachers of all levels can use Hidden Figures (original text, young readers’ edition, story book, or the film adaptation) and challenge students to retell stories of these incredible women (e.g., through Scratch animations).

Bryan Twarek, School District Representative

Graphic Novel Introduces Coding to Middle Schoolers

By Paul F. Lai, PhD Candidate, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education

By In her fifth year teaching computing, Melissa Dohm found an engaging and effective new way to introduce the core concept of binary to her diverse middle school students at Ochoa Middle School in Hayward, California. She discovered Secret Coders, a graphic novel created to teach coding to adolescents.

Secret Coders, written by Gene Luen Yang (himself a longtime Bay Area CS teacher) and illustrated by Mike Holmes, premiered its first volume in October 2015. The graphic novel unfolds the story of Hopper and Eni, two intrepid pupils in a Hogwarts-like private school, where instead of mysteries coded in magic spells, the secrets are revealed through fundamental coding concepts.

I spoke with Melissa, also a technology teacher leader and English teacher, about using Secret Coders to teach binary.

Lai: You had an inventive way to teach binary in the past, is that correct?

Melissa: Since my first year, I taught a binary using a “magic trick” in which students learned to guess a number between 1 and 15 by asking a series of questions. Students made an Excel project with conditional statement functions to get the right number. They loved it and would show all their friends. But getting them to “understand” binary was challenging and would take a full week of struggling with the concept.

Lai: How did Secret Coders help you teach binary?

Melissa: The comic was a quick and interesting. When Eni starts to describe binary to Hopper, rather than using strictly mathematical language, he makes it into a game with pennies and boxes drawn with sidewalk chalk. I borrowed that game for our class’s “kickoff,” copying Eni’s methods and replicated those steps from the comic on my board, with magnets and boxes. Kids were really excited by the puzzle, and seemed to easily grasp the concept.

Lai: So the graphic novel provided a visual and game-based way of letting students play with how a series of “yes” or “no” configurations.

Melissa: And they really grasped it. When I announced, “We’re going to read a comic book today!” the students were thrilled. I gave a synopsis of the main characters and setting as we walked through the beginning pages.

Lai: You’re an English teacher as well, and familiar with how comics work. How did the visual narrative of a graphic novel help with conceptual learning?

Melissa: The book was a phenomenal addition to the binary lesson; they couldn’t put it down. They responded to binary as part of the mystery of this haunted school. When I asked them whether Hopper had gotten it right the first time, they all knew where she’d gone wrong. What normally took a week for me to teach, most of the students understood within a day.

I usually typically use a presentation to explain the history of binary, the base 2 system, etc. But this time, they received that information much differently after the graphic novel lesson. And they did really well with the activities involving the magnets and boxes on the board. By the time we took the quiz at the end of the week, a much higher proportion of the students— nearly all of them— showed that they understood binary. They even excitedly taught it to another teacher!

Lai: Describe your classes.

Melissa: Our school is very diverse, so I have students from many ethnic groups, a growing number of girls, kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and students with different abilities. One of my female students struggles with basic math concepts, but the magnets, columns of boxes, and visuals from the lesson gave me a way to support her problem-solving when she was otherwise stuck. She couldn’t do the basic math, but Eni’s lessons and the columns helped her figure it out.

Lai: How do you plan to build upon this experience?

Melissa: The kids are really curious what happens next in Secret Coders. They wanted to know how they could get the book so maybe they will read ahead and spoil it. We will try out the next parts of Secret Coders, where Hopper and Eni start learning to code with a robot turtle and I plan to use future installments of the graphic novel. Giving students the story and characters to care about, along with the smart visual lessons you can present in something like a comic book, really fits the way I try to teach computers in interesting and hands-on ways.

More information about Secret Coders, as well as instructional resources, can be found at Read more stories with ideas for increasing diversity in CS education in the CSTA Voice