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 Code.org. 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