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

CS for All Means All Y’All

Right about now you should be thinking how great it is to be a K-12 CS educator.  If not, let me give you a few reasons.  How terrific it was to hear that President Donald Trump had re-purposed $200 million dollars at the US Department of Education to support STEM Education, including K-12 computer science education programs.  Women, minorities, and students in rural communities will particularly benefit from this presidential memorandum.  That’s exactly what we are talking about when we champion “CSforAll.”  And to sweeten the pot, a coalition of tech businesses including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, and many others agreed to give $300 million spread over the next five years to boost K-12 computer science programs.  So, it really is a great time to be a CS educator!

If you need more proof that it is a great time to be a CS educator, on October 16 and 17, over 170 organizations made new commitments to support CSforAll students.  These pledges were celebrated by a stakeholder community of educators and other supporters at the 2017 CSforAll Summit in St. Louis, Missouri.   You can view those commitments in this pdf Fact Sheet to see how many of our long-time friends and supporters are in the list and how many, many more you might not have known about.  CSTA made a commitment to continue to promote the new CSTA K-12 CS Standards broadly so that all states and school systems have rigorous models for their own standards and to work with 3-5 CSTA chapters to help them establish their CS program while developing state standards and supporting CS teachers.  Did you make a new commitment to support CSforAll students?  If not, why not do one now?  After all, it’s a great time to be a K-12 CS educator!

And, speaking of commitments, have you made a pledge for 2017 CS Education WeekCS Ed Week is December 4 – 10, 2017.  What a great time to champion CS education, celebrate Grace Hopper’s birthday (December 9), and introduce students to computer science.  It’s a great week for elementary/middle school educators to partner with high school students and educators to show the younger students how great CS is and to allow the older students to share their enthusiasm.  This year, CSTA is partnering with Family Code Night to encourage parents to join their children in coding at their local school—another great way to interest younger students in CS education.  Plan to participate in Family Code Night (or even better to help organize Family Code Night events in your community).  After all, it’s a great time to be a K-12 CS educator.  And, as we say in the south, All means All Y’all!

We know you are all doing spectacular work in your own schools, school systems, and CSTA chapters.  We look forward to reading about what you are doing to promote and bring CS education to all students.

Deborah Seehorn , CSTA Interim Executive Director

Disrupting the Gender Gap in Computer Science

On Friday, I’m giving a TED-style talk for our regional school association on what I call the “girl problem” in Computer Science, and how we might fix it. I’ve been preparing for this talk for months, reviewing research about best practices for engaging girls in Computer Science and generally examining the landscape. I work at an all-girls’ school, so you’d think this wouldn’t be an issue for me, but I still have to fight against stereotypes that Computer Science is geeky or boring, and girls’ lack of confidence in their ability to do the work. Once I get them into the classroom, I have a little easier time of it that those of you at co-ed schools. It’s getting them there that’s the challenge. For many of you out there, not only do you have to work to get them there, often you have to work to keep girls in the class and convince them to take the next one. Luckily, there are a lot of smart people out there doing research in this area and every time I turn around, I swear I’m seeing a new report on ways of engaging girls in Computer Science. I want to share with you some of things I’m sharing in my talk about why this is a problem, and what you can do to help fix it.

Why we have a problem

The reasons behind why the percentage of women pursuing a CS undergrad degree has fallen to around 18 percent, half of what it was 30 years ago, are surely complex. Consider, though, the sexism that still exists in our society and that girls find themselves facing at a young age. Think about the toy aisle with its distinct pink and blue color coding. The message that the toy aisle often sends is that girls are meant to be homemakers, caretakers and nurturing while boys are supposed to go places, design things and build stuff. Target got rid of gendered toy aisles and people went nuts.

The idea that boys are better at some things or meant for certain kinds of jobs and girls others permeates the technology industry as well. In my research, I ran across an article just reporting the low percentage of women in the technology industry. The comments on the article fell into two categories: 1) women aren’t as good at technology as men; and 2) women just aren’t interested in technology. Sadly, I’ve seen these attitudes among some educators, and it’s simply not true. Keep in mind that these commenters are often sitting on search committees and are potential co-workers. Their bias might be keeping them from hiring perfectly qualified women. After all, they believe they’re inherently not as good as men at Computer Science and/or are not really interested in the field.

The all-boys’ club image of Computer Science isn’t helped by the media, either. One prime example is Silicon Valley, an Amazon Prime show about a start-up. Sadly, there are no women on the development team, and the guys sit around a house coding all day and sometimes all night. They’re stereotypically socially awkward, especially around women. The show probably doesn’t make being part of a start-up look appealing to girls. There is research that suggests that television shows and films give young people ideas about what kinds of careers are appropriate for men and women. When only 7 percent of the computer scientists in film and only 16 percent of the computer scientists on prime time television are women, they’re certainly not seeing CS as an appropriate career very often (“Gender Roles and Occupation“, 2013).

This cultural environment can make girls not only find CS unappealing, but it can make them feel like they don’t belong, which can lead to a crisis of confidence. Girls already have a tendency to feel like the dumbest kid in the room even when they’re getting the best grades. Boys, on the other hand, feel just the opposite. They might be making Cs, but still see themselves in the top of the class. Girls are less likely to take risks than boys, which is great when it comes to deciding whether or not to skateboard off the railing, but not so great when it comes to trying out a class they’re unsure about. A great book about how girls (and women) feel less confident in their own abilities is The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. There’s some fascinating research in there that helped me understand some of my students (and myself) better.

What you can do

Okay, so we have a problem. There are actually some fairly easy things to do. In general, I would say to you, think about the message you’re sending to your students in the way your classroom looks, what kind of assignments you create, how your students are asked to complete those assignments. Think about the toy aisle and whether you’re telling girls this work is not for them.

Look around your classroom. If you have control over how it looks, please tell me it doesn’t look like the set of Star Wars, Dr. Who, or a video arcade. Yes, we geeks like those things, but it can be off-putting for some and send the message that in order to be a part of the class, your students have to like those things, too. Keep your decor neutral. Or maybe add some posters of women in Computer Science to go alongside your Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates posters. Think Grace Hopper, Jean Bartik, Maria Klawe, Karli Kloss, or Marissa Mayer. Recent research shows that when the classroom is neutral, girls are three times more likely to show an interest in Computer Science than when the CS classroom is stereotypically geeky. It makes a difference.

Think about your assignments. Are they the same assignments you did in high school? Unless you were in high school a few years ago, it might be time to update them. Connect your assignments to the real world. Many girls particularly like to see practical applications of the work they’re doing in class. Girls, in particular, also like to know that the work they’re doing could potentially help someone or help solve a problem that plagues the world.

Also think about how you have your students work on assignments. Does everyone complete all the assignments individually? Consider using pair programming, peer instruction, and group work. All of these methods not only make the work potentially more appealing to girls, who appreciate the social aspects of work, but they also help all students retain Computer Science concepts. They’re very effective pedagogical strategies.

Finally, encourage your students, especially your female students, along the way. When they make a mistake in class, be supportive, help them learn from it. If a girl seems to like CS, whether or not she’s good at it, encourage her to take another course or enroll in a summer program, or pursue CS at the next level, whether that’s high school, college or graduate school. Recent research from Google shows that encouragement is a key factor in retaining women to continue their student of CS.

If you’re in need of more ideas, there are plenty out there. Here are just a few places to start: