Marion Usselman, Ph.D., Principal Research Scientist, CEISMC, Georgia Institute of Technology
Diley Hernández, Ph.D., Associate Vice President, Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Georgia Institute of Technology
Doug Edwards, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, CEISMC, Georgia Institute of Technology
Though women were once at the forefront of developing the disciplines of computer programming and software engineering (Berkeley School of Information, 2021), the computer science (CS) workforce in the US for the past three decades has become a field of mostly White and Asian men. In 2019, women made up 47% of the labor force, but only 27% of those in CS-related jobs. Likewise, Black and Latinx individuals made up 29% of the labor force but held only 16% of these jobs (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2021). Enrollments in CS degree programs and in K-12 CS courses reveal a similar pattern. Since many of our well-paying jobs now require that people understand the basics about computer programs, networks, and cybersecurity, issues of equity and national interest create an imperative that all students be introduced to these skills, even when they have expressed no clear or prior interest in pursuing a career in CS. For many students, computer science isn’t on their radar simply because they don’t recognize that it is a possible career choice for them.
There are additional reasons why we should strive for a diverse and representative population in the CS workforce. Computing affects every citizen daily, embedded in everything from banking and cell phones, to facial recognition software. A diverse and inclusive CS workforce can push the industry towards more creative and innovative solutions to various societal problems. The same diversity can help society maintain a firm grasp on both the positive and negative possibilities raised by advances in computing-based fields such as artificial intelligence. It can also ensure that technological advances don’t create or accentuate social inequalities. To achieve that diversity, K-12 schools must provide pathways into computing that encourage students traditionally underrepresented in the field to learn about CS, to master computing skills, and to understand the power of this knowledge.
Still, the question at the core of this issue remains: why are women, Black, Latinx and Native people so underrepresented in CS? The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) addressed this issue in a report entitled Cultivating Interest and Competencies in Computing: Authentic Experiences and Design Factors (NASEM, 2021). The report offers a review of the multiple social barriers experienced by students from traditionally underrepresented and underserved backgrounds, including the lack of access to resources, the effects of stereotypes and implicit biases, and the importance of creating opportunities for students to develop a sense of belonging and a positive CS identity. The committee recommended that CS programs provide students with experiences that are both personally and professionally authentic, and that enable students to draw upon and validate their own backgrounds and home experiences. The committee also emphasized the need for professional learning experiences for teachers that enable them to effectively implement student-centered pedagogical strategies, and to allow students choice within curricular activities, so that they can build upon their personal funds of knowledge (Lopez, 2017). Significantly, the 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (Banilower et al., 2018) found that over 70% of CS teachers hold traditional beliefs about instruction that run counter to project-based learning pedagogy, and only 16% feel prepared to incorporate students’ cultural backgrounds into their CS instruction. This, undoubtedly, creates a unique challenge for the future of computer science education in our country.
As an answer to this challenge, and with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF award #1639946), Georgia Tech researchers developed a new introductory high school CS course, titled Student-Centered Computing (SCC), specifically designed to provide all students with the types of inclusive experiences envisioned by the NASEM committee. The project team collaborated with two school systems to pilot the course, working with four teachers in 14 classes over the course of two years, and reaching over 350 students. In the SCC course, students are encouraged to bring their personal interests and knowledge to bear on their coursework by choosing a focal problem of their interest, teaming up with like-minded students, and using that issue as the driver for a year-long project. While pursuing their project, students learn programming skills by creating a variety of digital artifacts–a narrated PowerPoint presentation and website to raise awareness of the topic, digitally produced music using the EarSketch platform aimed at creating emotional connections to their topic, and an app-based game to engage users in solutions to the focal problem. High school students in our pilot program chose issues that ranged from mental health, racism, and food insecurity, to drugs, drunk driving and ocean pollution—a testimony to the seriousness of their interests and to the personal, social, community, and cultural nature of their engagement with the class content.
The SCC curriculum is structured using student-centered pedagogical strategies drawn from the literature based on Project-Based Learning (PBL). These include: 1) Collaboration; 2) A Challenging Problem or Question; 3) Personal and Professional Authenticity; 4) Student Voice and Choice; 5) Sustained Inquiry; 6) Critique and Revision; 7) Reflection; and 8) Public Product. The curriculum also intentionally embeds practices drawn from the field of psychology that attend to the cultural and social needs of traditionally under-served students by nurturing students’ self-determination and identity in the classroom (Ryan & Deci, 2016). The primary Culturally Authentic Practices (CAPS) incorporated into the SCC curriculum are:
- Promoting asset-based thinking and sense of belonging
- Building equity through collaborative work
- Building agency
- Addressing social identity/stereotype threat
The following table provides some examples of how each of these CAPS are operationalized within the SCC curriculum.
|Culturally Authentic Practices
|Promoting asset-based thinking and sense of belonging
|· Problems are narrated as stories that emphasize context, characters, and audience. This emphasis on storytelling enables students to incorporate their own culture into their products.
· Students engage in a progressive resume-building activity, adding new skills as they acquire them, and reflecting on the strengths they bring to the project.
· Students explore different types of roles involved in CS-based careers and reflect upon their own interests and talents.
|Building equity through collaborative work
|· Students continually work in groups, with roles defined within the curriculum and rotated among the students.
· Teachers are provided with guidance on how to use jigsaw strategies to ensure that all students feel their contributions are essential to the work of the group, how to manage group dynamics, cultural considerations that may emerge, and how to maximize students’ voice and choice.
|· Students choose their own focal problem, thereby ensuring that they pursue personally relevant project work that is grounded in their own experiences.
· Students use CS skills to address real-world problems which help them see themselves as agents of change in the pursuit of a more just world, and envision their “future self” in CS.
|Addressing social identity/stereotype threat
|· Students’ CS role-switching and the progressive resume building help them build competence and see their CS knowledge acquisition as incremental.
· Reflective discussions (i.e.“Who is a Coder?”) enable students to critically examine society’s views on coding while also envisioning themselves in that role.
· Reflection activities based on role model videos are also incorporated into the SCC curriculum. Students watch video interviews with Black, Latinx, and women undergraduate and graduate students who are successful CS majors and who discuss the challenges they have faced and how they have persisted within the field despite these challenges.
Research conducted as part of this NSF STEM+C project corroborates that the SCC curriculum supports students exercising agency throughout the course (Gale et al., in press), and has shown that students who participate in the SCC course report increases in cognitive engagement as well as an increase in their intention to persist in the field (Edwards, 2022) (Alemdar et al., 2019). Teachers who implemented the curriculum reported in interviews and focus groups that students were highly engaged as their teams conducted research and created and shared their digital products. Both students and teachers appreciated that the curriculum allowed students to choose their own focal problems and empowered them to use their voice and embed their personal narratives in their projects (Newton et al., submitted for publication).
The SCC pilot teachers worked with the project team during the summer to become familiar with the course, and maintained close connections during the course implementation. At the end of the year, the teachers confirmed that, like in other fields, implementing effective PBL instruction is hard work that requires an understanding of, and appreciation for, student-driven learning. Teachers who instruct using the SCC curriculum do best if they are comfortable not always being the expert in the classroom, and are willing to let students explore and learn on their own (Moriarty, 2018). Solid classroom management skills—the ability to troubleshoot issues, handle disruptions, and to manage group dynamics with students of varying abilities and interests—are particularly important. So, too, is having the support of a school administration that believes that students from all backgrounds can flourish in CS, and that understands and values student-centered learning. The ongoing SCC program has since provided online teacher professional development for over 150 teachers, dividing the time equally between the technical components of the course and the pedagogical framework and culturally authentic practices that are central to the experience.
School systems everywhere are under pressure to offer CS and computational thinking instruction starting as early as elementary school. This demand has greatly outpaced the supply of teachers equipped to provide this type of instruction. Our work has shown the value of providing students with authentic and learner-driven educational experiences in CS. But it has also demonstrated that for teachers to be able to effectively engage all types of students in CS content and help diversify student pathways into CS, they need pedagogical training that emphasizes inclusive and student-centered instruction, not just a firm grasp of technical CS skills. This is particularly critical at the introductory level, where students can make career decisions based on their perceptions as to whether they belong or not in a field. Our view is that good reform-based teaching that centers diverse students’ motivational and multi-cultural needs is the primary driver of success in supporting learning and expanding all students’ access to careers in computer science. If students in the 9th grade can’t imagine themselves as computer scientists or see how CS skills are relevant to their interests and lives, they will never enroll in advanced CS classes later in high school. The Student-Centered Computing curriculum, scaffolded to support inclusive and culturally authentic practices, strives to promote just this type of expansion of students’ perceptions of their possible identities and futures.
Thanks to ARISE Blog Editor, Dr. Meltem Alemdar, for inviting the Georgia Tech researchers to share their high school computer science course designed to provide all students with the types of inclusive experiences recommended by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Please read the ARISE blog by Meltem and her colleague Jessica Gale, “Consider the Source(s): Supporting the Cultivation of Early Career STEM Teachers’ Self-Efficacy Beliefs.”