Reflections on Teaching Computing, Ethics and Social Responsibility

This fall, I taught an undergraduate class (at the University of Colorado Boulder) on Computing, Ethics and Social Responsibility.   It was a wonderful experience.    I think there are some lessons from this experience that are relevant to high school teachers who are thinking of introducing some discussion of issues in ethics and computing into their courses, even if just a few classes or portions of classes are devoted to this topic.   There also is an increasing awareness that these sorts of issues shouldbe introduced to students studying computer science in high school.   So, a few reflections:

  • There are lots of interesting topics.   My course included discussion of: internet privacy, including targeted advertising and the Right to be Forgotten; internet security and hacking; facial recognition; misinformation; impacts of internet and social media on our lives, particularly those of young people; algorithmic bias; gender and race in algorithms, and in the computing industry; use of robotics in eldercare and in warfare; autonomous vehicles;  medical and healthcare applications of computing; and the impact of computing technologies on the future of work.   Certainly there are some topics in that list that would interest you and your students!
  • The best resources are recent media articles.  And there is no shortage!   You can easily populate a few classes from what pops up in your newsfeeds in recent months.   There also are ways that you can find references that other people have used.   One approach is to go to this crowdsourced listof courses in tech ethics and look at the references used in some of those courses.   There is work in progress in ACM aimed at organizing a repository of links to such articles.
  • Students are interested.   My experience was that there was plenty of interest and enthusiasm from students for these topics, particularly ones that related to the students’ experiences and interests.    One example is how sites such as YouTube, or any site with ads, decide what to recommend to us next – everyone has experienced that and wondered about it a little.  Robotic applications are another – everyone wonders what’s coming in their lifetimes.
  • The students’ perspectives may be different than yours.   An example in my course was discussions of privacy and surveillance; the famous 1999 remark of Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, “You have zero privacy anyway.  Get over it.”, seems to have become much closer to the reality of the current younger generations.
  • Small group discussions are particularly effective.    The students got energized about discussing a particular topic or an article they had read and then summarizing their small group discussions with the full class. Groups of 3-5 students and 10-15 minute discussions seemed to work well.
  • Short written assignments are effective.  This is a nice opportunity for students to be resourceful by finding a recent article related to ethics and computing on their own, and submitting a short summary and reflection on it.
  • There is a field called philosophy.   Most undergraduate courses in this area introduce several philosophical theories, most commonly deontology, act utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and sometimes social contract theory.   This may not be feasible in a briefer coverage in high school, but it may be good to make people aware that theories like this underlie a careful treatment of these topics.
  • Your mileage may vary.    As always.
Bobby Schnabel
Board Representative

Recent Good News on Participation and Opportunities for Young Women Studying Computer Science

Two pieces of important and good news have come out recently about the state of, and opportunities for, the participation of young women in computer science.   The first is the participation of women in the 2019 computer science advance placement exams; the second is the announcement of this year’s Aspirations in Computing awards program organized by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.   Together, they are an indication of how far we’ve come as a community in recent years in embracing the opportunities for young women to study computer science in high school, and in providing encouragement and support to continue these studies in college.

The participation in the computer science AP exams, like most everything else associated with computing, has exploded in recent years, and the participation of young women has outpaced the overall growth.   As is summarized in this article, the total number of women taking CS AP exams in 2019 grew 32% since last year, to over 48,000, and the percentage of women among all test-takers increased to over 29%.   The growth in the number of women taking AP CS is nearly five-fold in just four years, and the percentage of women which had hovered in the high teens for years has grown dramatically.

Much of the growth of enrollment in high school computer science, and in CS AP exams, is due to the CS Principles course.   As is described here, in just three years since this course and exam were introduced, the number of students taking CS Principles AP has skyrocketed to over 96,000, which now is nearly 60% of the total CS AP test takers. And the participation of women students in the CS Principles AP exam outpaces the overall CS AP participation by women, at 33%.   This still is far from half but is approaching a tipping point! 

A great accompaniment to the quickly growing participation of young women in high school computer science courses is the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Program.   The Aspirations program has grown over recent years to include not only awards that have become well known, but also community elements that stretch down to lower grades and up to the university level.  Here I’ll just focus on the upcoming awards program.  The Aspirations awards are a great opportunity to recognize and encourage young women who are actively engaged in computing at the high school level.   By a system of competitions and awards that now is conducted in 79 separate regions across the US, this program provides opportunities to recognize many young women annually (nearly 14,000 since 2007!), as well as their teachers.   Having been to several regional Aspirations awards ceremonies, it is inspirational to see the impact of this program on the young women and on their families.   Please encourage your students to apply to Aspirations, and support them in taking courses that lead to the CS AP exams!

Bobby Schnabel
Board Representative

Why the Responsible Computer Science Challenge Matters to You

A few weeks ago, a group of organizations (Omidyar Network, Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies) announced the winners of the “Responsible Computer Science Challenge.”   What is this challenge? It’s an initiative to integrate content about ethics and responsibility into undergraduate computer science curricula and pedagogy in U.S. colleges and universities – clearly a timely and important topic.

But in most cases, you as a reader of this CSTA blog are involved with K-12, not university, computer science education.   So why should the Responsible Computer Science Challenge matter to you? Three reasons:

  1. The materials produced will be designed for incorporation into technical computer science courses, including at the introductory level.   As the topic of ethics and social responsibility in computing has become more prevalent in university computer science education, initially much of that has been in standalone courses.   There’s nothing wrong with that – I sure hope not, I’m introducing such a course at my university next semester! But ethics will become far more fundamental to the mindset of computer scientists if it is an integral part of core, technical computer science classes, and this is exactly the approach that the Responsible Computer Science Challenge takes.   Many of the successful proposals address introductory classes. As such, they should produce materials and approaches that are relevant and helpful in K-12 computer science education as well.
  1. The outputs from the funded projects will be openly available.   A fundamental feature of the Responsible Computer Science Challenge has been the production of openly available materials, such as syllabi or class activities.   This will be done either by making these materials available online without restrictions, or where a license is involved, through use of a Creative Commons license.  Thus, a rich library of materials for K-12 and university educators to consider will be produced within the next 1-2 years.
  1. The quality is likely to be very high.   The competition in this challenge was stiff and the 17 award winners are a broad set with very high-quality experience and plans.   The breadth cuts across many dimensions: types of universities (community college, undergraduate colleges, research universities, public and private, small and large); types of curricular and classroom approaches (e.g. ethics exercises and assignments, role playing games, case studies); and the courses to be targeted (including introductory programming, algorithm design, AI, data science, cybersecurity and more).   

For more information on the Responsible Computer Science Challenge and the 17 award winners, see and  

By Bobby Schnabel, Partner Representative

What Employers of Computing Professionals Want

There are lots of important reasons for teaching K-12 / pre-university students computer science.   Providing the first step towards ultimately becoming a computing professional is just one, which applies to a minority of the students; for most it is an important life skill that they will use as citizens and in whatever jobs they have.   But some – hopefully more as we teach more computer science in schools –go on to become computer professionals.  So it may be interesting to share some insights into what their prospective employers are looking for.

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to interface with lots of computing employers for years, both tech companies and other companies looking for computing talent.   I’ve done this in a variety of regions of the US, primarily Indiana (where I was from 2007-15), Colorado (where I’ve been the rest of my adult life), and the Bay Area (where I go frequently for professional reasons and to keep our airlines solvent).

Regardless of the region, or the size or type of company, one hears a consistent set of desires for computing employees: 1) we need more of them; 2) we need better diversity; 3) we need them to have strong non-technical as well as technical skills.  K-12 computer science teachers can play an important role in all these regards.

The quantity need is self-explanatory.   If there is any surprise, it is that everyone says this – whether famous large companies or small ones, whether situated in a tech hotbed or not, whether tech companies or other types.  University computer science enrollments have exploded in recent years – tripled or more at many places – but it’s still not satisfying demand.   The huge increase in students taking things like CS AP hopefully points to even more growth.

Companies view diversity as a social imperative but even more as a business imperative.   It is documented that diverse teams produce greater creativity and better business results.   And products designed for a diverse market need diverse input in their creation.   We are seeing progress in the gender and ethnic diversity of students learning computer science in schools but have a long way to go to produce a computing workforce that reflects society.

Finally, managers almost always stress the non-technical skills computing professionals need beyond computing: communication, collaboration, often some business understanding, ethics, and more.   Being a computing professional has evolved to a job where one often works on professionally diverse teams, and on projects (e.g. autonomous vehicles, or social networks) that require a sensibility about people and the world.   Working practice of those skills into your computing course is a good way to reinforce their importance.   And when that student who already has taken several computing classes comes to you to ask about another, it might be good to point them to a communication class instead!

Bobby Schnabel, Partner Representative

Call for Input: K-12 Content on Computing, Ethics and Social Responsibility

I’ll start with the punch line: I’m starting to get involved with understanding what innovative approaches are appearing in higher education throughout the world in educating students about the intersection of computing with ethics and social responsibility. I’m sure there are some equally innovative things going on at the K-12/pre-university level. If you’re involved with education in this area, or if you know of interesting work that others are doing, I’d love to hear from you – just email me at In subsequent blog posts I will share things that I’ve learned, from you and from the higher education community.

I doubt one needs to say why this topic is important. Once upon a time, computer science was far removed from societal implications. We worked on writing operating systems and compilers – the things that go on inside the computer – or applications in business data processing and scientific computing. When computers impacted society, that impact was fairly far removed from what the computer scientist had worked on directly.

How times have changed! Computing professionals often now work on applications that directly impact the basic fabric of our society. This can be social network software that for many of us has become a dominant form of human interaction; or robotic systems that are or will be used as substitutes for human interaction in eldercare and maybe even childcare; or artificial intelligence systems that are used as the basis for making judgments in situations ranging from loan applications to judicial sentencing; and dozens more that you can readily add to this list.

The implication is that not only do computing professionals need to be taught, as a topic just as fundamental as programming or machine learning, to think in terms of the ethics and social implications of what they do – but that every citizen needs to have this perspective as well as they deal with computing systems that are ubiquitous in our society. Creators of computing systems need to apply high moral and ethical standards to their work and learn to think about the consequences, intended or not, of the systems they create; users need to realize that computing tools may have biases or harmful consequences, and aren’t necessarily perfectly trustworthy just because they come from a “machine”. This means that all students need to be exposed to these perspectives, beginning when they start learning computing in schools. I look forward to learning what you may be doing in this regard or just hearing your thoughts on this topic!

Bobby Schnabel, Partner Representative

Reflections on the NCWIT Summit

Last week, I attended the annual summit of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). (CSTA executive director Jake Baskin was there too.) The NCWIT summit is a meeting of about 700 people who are involved in the activities of NCWIT – K-12, higher education, workforce. It’s a working meeting – people come to discuss and learn ways to effectively increase the meaningful participation of women and girls in computing-related fields. It also always includes several inspiring keynote talks related to diversity, ranging from motivational to scholarly.

One thing that always has been special about NCWIT is the active participation of men as well as women. The issue of striving to improve the involvement of women and girls in IT is crucial to all of us in computing and to our entire society, and requires the involvement of all of us. The gender breakout at the summit reflected this.

Two of the keynote talks at the summit embraced this theme of shared responsibility and took it further. One, by Dr. Jackson Katz, addressed the more general issues of sexual harassment and gender violence by men towards women, and their hugely harmful effects that can go well beyond the people directly involved. The speaker stressed the responsibility of men not only not to behave like this, but to not tolerate this behavior by other men. Another keynote talk by well-known sociopolitical comedian Kamau Bell addressed racism in the United States, with an analogous message: the responsibility of Caucasian Americans not only to not behave in this manner but to stand up to this behavior by others.

How do these messages impact all of us, particularly educators in K-12 and other settings? Very directly. We each have the responsibility to assure that all voices are given equal opportunities to be heard, in our classrooms and in our professional meetings. We also need to model inclusive behavior, and to stand up to behavior that is discriminatory. Ideally, we will do this not by shaming, but by making responses that sustain a positive environment and often, create a teachable moment. Doing this in the heat of the moment isn’t easy and can be aided by some preparation, such as the NCWIT resource or many resources that have become available on “Bystander Training”.

Bobby Schnabel, Partner Representative

How Far We’ve Come – and How Far We Have To Go

Roughly ten years ago, the US computing community first started to really address policy about teaching K-12 computer science. The ACM Education Policy Committee was formed with K-12 education as its focus, and a few people – including Cameron Wilson (then ACM policy director, now COO and President of the Advocacy Coalition of, Chris Stephenson (then executive director of CSTA, now with Google), and I (as chair of the committee) spent quite a bit of time talking to education policy makers in DC about computing education. This included both staff members in Congress and people in science policy organizations in DC. It was shocking – almost to a person they had no idea of the importance of the computer science, e.g. that even then most STEM jobs openings were and were projected to be in computing. It was almost as if Silicon Valley and DC lived in different universes!
On the one hand, things have changed drastically in ten years – awareness of the importance of computing and computing education is universal, in DC, by state governors and legislatures, and to a good extent by the public. When STEM-oriented policy is created these days, computer science almost always is included, something that wasn’t true a short number of years ago. And there has been significant growth in the amount of K-12 computer science education, as exemplified by the over 5-fold increase in the number of students taking AP Computer Science exams over the past ten years.
On the other hand, US K-12 CS education is just getting started. If the entire K-12 curriculum were invented from scratch today, it is not implausible to think that computer science would be as fundamental as math or language arts, with as many specialized teachers or general teachers who are well-versed in computer science, and as many hours devoted to computer science as any other primary subject. We are very far from there – in our curricula, in the number of teachers, in the orientation of schools of education where most teachers are prepared. This is where CSTA and its partner organizations come in – in continuing to advocate for the importance of K-12 computer science education, in helping with curricular standards, and most importantly, in providing community for computer science teachers, particularly when often there are only one or two per school. Ten years from now, things will again look very different than now, and CSTA will have played a major role in the evolution.

Bobby Schnabel, Partner Representative