#120 – Diversifying the Computer Science Pipeline

Unpacking Education October 5, 2022 38 min

As our world becomes more and more tech-driven, career opportunities in computer science and other STEM fields are growing as well. These career areas offer significant opportunities for good-paying jobs and financial security. Despite the fact that about 70% of STEM jobs are in the area of computing, only about 10% of people earning bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields earn them in computer science. Of those earning degrees, people of color and other “historically excluded students” remain underrepresented.

In our podcast today, we explore the current state of computer science education and discuss potential solutions for increasing interest in the computer sciences, especially among those from historically excluded groups. To provide insight and expertise on this topic, we are joined by Allen Antoine, a Computer Science and School Culture Professional Development Specialist from The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

The quality, relevance, and impact of the products and services output by the technology sector can only be improved by having the people who are building them be demographically representative of the people who are using them.

Tracy Chou, software engineer and advocate for diversity in technology related fields, CEO of Block Party, formerly worked at Pinterest

Resources

The following resources are available from AVID to discover more about the various components of the AVID Open Access website:

Filling and Diversifying the Pipeline

There is a need for more computer science teachers, and there is a need for more students to engage in the computer science field. While this shortage is evident across multiple demographics, it is especially pronounced for “historically excluded” groups of people. Our guest, Allen Antoine, says, “I use the term ‘historically excluded’ quite intentionally because they’re excluded for a reason.” Throughout our podcast, we look at why people of color may feel excluded from the computer science field. We also explore ways to change this history and get students, teachers, and systems to engage people of color with computer science and STEM careers in a way that connects with their identities and motivates them to continue their studies in this field. Allen encourages our listeners to get involved and reminds us that “You can become part of the solution.” Here are a few highlights from this episode.

  • The importance of diversity in computer science: A big part of improving diversity in the computer sciences is about providing opportunities. Computer science jobs are in demand, and they pay well. We need to introduce students of color to these opportunities. Diversity in the field is also important to reduce the bias that can creep into the development of new technology. Technology and algorithms are not race-neutral. They are influenced by the attitudes and perspectives of those who create them. Allen points out that some technology, such as facial recognition software, is “not working the same for people of different skin color.” While the development of these products might be well intended, he adds that the solution to creating unintentionally biased technology “boils down to . . . having diverse perspectives in the room” when these products are created.
  • Underrepresentation of people of color: Allen points out that the vast majority (about 75%) of computer science teachers are white, and only about 19% are from historically excluded groups. These historically excluded groups include people of color and women. Allen adds, “There are so many ways that students won’t see themselves in this space because there are so many subliminal ways where they’re not allowed to see themselves.”
  • Barriers: Only about half of U.S. high schools currently offer computer science classes. Allen points out that “It’s the haves and have-nots” when it comes to computer science learning opportunities. Those that have the resources often have the access. And, when students have opportunities to take these courses, they may not see themselves in that area of study due to the lack of role models who look like them. Another barrier can be the sequencing of prerequisite courses. For instance, students who do not take algebra in middle school might find themselves behind in the math sequence of courses which may ultimately exclude them from taking computer science in high school. It’s important that students and families know about these potential limiters and prerequisite courses.
  • Solutions: Allen is currently creating an online course called “Strategies for Effective and Inclusive Computer Science Teaching” to help get more students and teachers into the computer science pipeline. Allen stresses the importance of creating a curriculum that will “make these students want to stay.” We also need to introduce more diverse role models in computer science so students can see themselves in that coursework. The message to women and people of color must be, “We need you.”
  • Teaching strategies: Culturally responsive teaching strategies can, and should, be integrated into computer science instruction. Allen points out that we need to “have these students doing projects and activities that speak to family and communal and cultural assets.” He adds that computer science needs to be engaging and fun. “Computer science can’t just be let’s sit in front of this computer and code,” he says. “Let’s not do that. Let’s get up. Let’s move around. Let’s have some voice.” When teachers introduce computer science concepts, they need to send the message that “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be interesting.”
  • Schools and districts: Schools and districts need to make computer science a priority. Often, these courses can get put aside because they are seen as electives that take a back seat to required courses. Allen stresses that we must prioritize computer science and ensure some of our best and brightest get into these classrooms. His message to teachers and schools: “You can’t be afraid to try to be part of the solution.”
  • Hope: Allen points out that “There are people out there doing the work,” and this gives him hope that opportunities in computer science will increase for historically excluded students. At a recent Computer Science Teachers Association conference in Chicago, Allen was encouraged by the large number of computer science teachers of color who were in attendance. He encourages computer science teachers to reach out and “find your village.” Zoom meetings and video conferencing software have expanded our opportunities to connect with people from around the world. Computer science teachers should take advantage of these possibilities to connect and support each other in this work.
  • Integration of foundational skills: The foundational skills of computer science, such as algorithm development and computational thinking, can be integrated into any discipline. Allen explains, “It’s all about problem-solving.” And once you start developing problem-solving skills, he adds, you are developing the prerequisite skills to enter computer science. Teachers in all curriculum areas can help interest in computer science by integrating these types of problem-solving activities into their classes.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What is the impact when historically excluded groups of people are not involved in the development of new technologies?
  • What STEM and computer science career opportunities are available in your geographic area?
  • What are the computer science educational opportunities available for the students in your school or district?
  • What possibilities exist for expanding computer science courses and learning opportunities for the students in your school or district?
  • What barriers might hinder “historically excluded” groups of students from becoming engaged in computer science?
  • How might the foundational concepts of computer science (like algorithmic development, problem-solving skills, and computational thinking) be integrated into other subject areas?
  • What can you do to encourage and introduce more diversity into the computer science pipeline?