Reprogram Unconscious Bias in Computing

Understand how teaching students computational thinking in any subject and at any age can help diminish unconscious bias in computing and our society.

Grades K-12 9 min Resource by:
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Have you ever been shopping on Amazon and noticed that ads were popping up from something you just said you needed? Weird…or was it just Artificial Intelligence (AI) gathering information from all the devices and programs you use in order to target you based on an algorithm created by some programmers?

These targeting efforts may seem harmless, but AI is used in much more than just marketing and advertising. AI is also used by social media platforms, such as Facebook or Instagram, to recognize your face, tag you in photos, offer you friend suggestions, and share articles or videos with you that can put you in a media bubble where you only see one cultural perspective or view of events. LinkedIn uses AI to offer you relevant job recommendations and suggest connections with others. AI is used in applicant and loan screenings to help predict creditworthiness of an applicant. AI (the COMPAS algorithm) is helping judges deliberate whether or not a defendant should be kept in jail or allowed out while awaiting trial. Artificial intelligence is likely being used in your teacher evaluations, too. AI is truly all around us and can aid efficiency and be a positive tool, but at the same time, it can also be biased and cause harm.

Artificial intelligence is all around us and growing every day. AI perpetuates the unconscious bias of the people who are creating it, and according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of those people are still White males. Even more concerning is that AI can perpetuate bias on an unprecedented scale and in record time. Many researchers have discovered that AI is biased, just like the people who created it. In their article, Can you make AI fairer than a judge? Play our courtroom algorithm game, Karen Hao and Jonathan Stray pointed out, “In any context where an automated decision-making system must allocate resources or punishments among multiple groups that have different outcomes, different definitions of fairness will inevitably turn out to be mutually exclusive.”

In other words, fairness and what fairness means is decided by the creators of the AI and is bound to be biased, even if unconsciously. If the only people, or the overwhelming majority of them, creating the algorithms are from a singular group, there is bound to be bias and missing perspectives. Furthermore, because AI is often created by private companies through complex systems, people do not have the ability to understand and question its outcomes. In other words, if it is unfair, it is extremely difficult to fight for fairness, and therefore, there are very few checks and balances. There is little accountability.

There are several organizations, such as the AI Now Institute—as well as many private companies, like Microsoft and IBM—who are actively trying to fix the problem through research on the social impacts of AI technology. However, that is not enough! The majority of people creating AI are still White males. Beyond just actively seeking more diversity in the computing profession, we as educators need to help fix the problem by looking at our education system. In many school districts, the statistics of students enrolled in AP® Computer Science courses—if the class is even offered—reflect the AI workforce statistics. Like in the profession itself, the majority of students are still White males. In order to disrupt and change who is creating AI, we need to change who and how we are teaching computer science, starting in elementary school. We need to expose, teach, and integrate computer science and computational thinking early on in all schools—not just a select few that happen to be located in a high socioeconomic area.

Computer science (CS) and computational thinking (CT) can be integrated into any subject and taught to students of any age. It is important, even if you are not a CS teacher, to create meaningful connections between the content that you teach and CS/CT and to also provide authentic and meaningful opportunities for CS/CT to be integrated into your curriculum. By doing so, you will expose students who may have never had the opportunity to engage in CS/CT before, and they may be able to see themselves going into a computing field or have a better understanding about how computing can support them no matter what career they want to pursue. For some helpful ideas, tips, and resources to get you started or to continue your development around integration of CS/CT, review the following AVID Open Access resources:

In addition, there are many other useful computer science and computational thinking resources that are free to students, teachers, or districts and can be used to create meaningful learning opportunities for all students in helping prepare them for their future and in making a better future for us all:

  • AVID Open Access STEM Activities provide access to free coding, computer science, robotics, and unplugged activities.
  • offers both high-quality K–12 curriculum and free K–12 resources. In addition, offers free professional learning and support.
  • Code Monster from Crunchzilla shows two adjacent boxes. One box displays written code, while the other shows what the code does. Students can play around with code to learn through doing.
  • Girls Who Code offers curriculum and resources, especially to support before- and after-school clubs and summer programs for girls.
  • Google’s CS First is a computer science curriculum that allows students to choose a topic of interest and program in the Scratch platform.
  • Khan Academy has some basic programming tutorials that teach kids how to build graphics, animations, interactive visualizations, and more.
  • Let’s Mod is an interactive virtual playground for K–12 students to engage in computational thinking, specifically to solve math problems using 3D simulators.
  • Microsoft MakeCode is an open source platform that integrates physical computing, using simulators and physical devices. Students can use a block editor or a JavaScript editor.
  • San Francisco Unified School District provides access to free K–5 Creative Computing Curriculum.
  • Scratch (Tips) is a block-based programming language and platform, where users can create online projects. A person’s imagination is the limit in Scratch.
  • Scratch Encore offers helpful computer science instructional curriculum and materials, targeted at grade 4–6 classrooms that are using Scratch, and with a focus on equity.
  • ScratchJr is a block-based programming language and platform that is geared specifically for children under age 8, though it can also be useful for older learners. Anyone can use ScratchJr, even if they cannot yet read.

With educators from around the world providing opportunities for all students to experience and meaningfully engage in computer science and computational thinking, we can reprogram the future to be more diverse, more equitable, and a better place for everyone to live.