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Steps Teachers Can Take to Keep Girls and Minorities in Computer Science Education

It’s no secret that women, African Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in computer science classrooms and careers.

Among students who take AP Computer Science courses in high school, for example, boys outnumber girls by more than 4 to 1. In 2013, only eight percent of students taking the AP CS exam were Hispanic and just three percent were African American. A recent report from Google and Gallup on diversity gaps in computer science education pointed to “structural and social barriers” for these three populations.  

It’s not enough to simply recruit underrepresented students to enroll in CS classes, say leaders in the field; once students are signed up, schools need do more to create inclusive classroom environments that position them for success.

Last summer, Cynthia Lee, a lecturer in the computer science department at Stanford University, created a widely-circulated document called, “What can I do today to create a more inclusive community in CS?” The list was developed during a summer workshop funded by the National Science Foundation for newly hired computer science faculty and was designed for busy educators. 

“I know the research behind these best practices,” said Lee, “but my passion comes from what I’ve experienced in tech spaces, and what students have told me about their experiences in computer science classrooms.”

Too often students from diverse backgrounds “feel that they simply aren’t wanted,” said Lee. “What I hear from students is that when they are working on their assignments, they love [computer science]. But when they look up and look around the classroom, they see that ‘there aren’t many people like me here.’ If anything is said or done to accentuate that, it can raise these doubts in their mind that cause them to questions their positive feelings about the subject matter.”

Students from underrepresented demographics are more likely to interpret a single piece of feedback — such as a poor quiz score — as a generalized assessment of their skill and potential. “They may say to themselves, ‘Everyone was right all along. I really don’t belong here,’” said Lee. In contrast, when students who are in the majority perform poorly on a quiz, “they are more likely to contextualize or externalize their performance, telling themselves, ‘It’s just one score; I was having a bad day; or the teacher made the test too difficult.’”

Many of the suggestions on Lee’s list can be adapted for use in middle and high school computer science classrooms. Art Lopez teaches at Sweetwater High School in the San Diego County, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Under his leadership, his district has gone from offering zero CS classes five years ago to offering 41 this year. He says Lee’s list resonates with his efforts: “You have got to make sure you build a community in the classroom. That’s so important.”

PRACTICAL STEPS

Create a Warm Climate that Encourages a Growth Mindset

Lee recommends opening class by telling the students that “you are proud of them and how hard they are working.” As her CS colleague John Ousterhout is fond of telling students, “A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept.” In other words, rather than focus on a single point in time or a single quiz score, focus on the big picture: their growing understanding of the material.

A little warmth goes a long way, especially when students are nervous about whether they belong, said Lee. “Something as simple as saying, ‘I like working with you and I am enjoying teaching this class’ lets them know that their presence is respected.”

Lopez begins the year by destigmatizing the idea of failure and pledging his support: “I tell my students, ‘I’m going to learn from you as much as you are going to learn from me.  We are on this journey together. Don’t worry about failing! Computing is all about trying and failing. But then we’ll try to fix the program and make it work right.’”

Help Students Find Meaning with the Work

As an introductory activity, Lee suggests asking students to name one of their core values and describe how CS could be used in service of that value. This can create a connection between the instructor and the student and help students find personal relevance with the course material.

Lopez says that this approach can help students who have a narrow, stereotypical view of computer programming. “You have to give lots of entry points. Show them how they can use CS to help their community, to serve others, to creative video games, or to work for Pixar. Connect it to their interests. Computer science is creative.”

Examine Bias and Representation in Class Materials

Review presentations and handouts to make sure that they are free from gendered pronouns, especially those used in stereotypical ways, said Lee.  Look at materials, posters, and images with a critical eye: do they include diverse races and genders in non-stereotyped roles? Do they include a broad selection of names?  

Lopez asks his students to close their eyes and imagine a computer scientist.  When they open their eyes, he puts up pictures of his former students — and pictures of them. “I tell them ‘Here is what I see when I think about computer scientists.’”

Examine Your Own Bias

Sometimes teachers slip into stereotypical language without meaning to. For example, said Lee, phrases such as “This is so easy your mom could use it” or “How would you explain this to your grandma?” implicitly equate women with a lack of tech savvy. Other suggestions from her list include:

  • Believe that hard work and effective practice matters more than DNA. Your beliefs influence students’ beliefs and impact their performance.
  • When a student is speaking, wait for the student to finish and then count “one one-thousand, two one-thousand” in your mind before responding. Both men and women are prone to prematurely cutting off women when they speak.
  • Watch out for examples or anecdotes about your childhood or daily life that may cause students to feel excluded for economic reasons (e.g., talking about pricey gadgets or vacations in Hawaii as normal).

At Sweetwater and Stanford, this deliberate emphasis on inclusivity has had an impact. In Lopez’s district CS class enrollment expanded rapidly, and his students have begun to serve as national role models for inclusivity in the field: in September, some of Lopez’s students were invited to present at the White House Summit on Computer Science for All. At Stanford, computer science has become one of the most popular majors for women. Currently, 32 percent of declared CS undergraduate majors are women — twice the national average.  Lee gives some of the credit to the department’s emphasis to inclusivity. “The faculty are extremely committed to implementing the types of things on this list,” Lee said.


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