The Importance of a Computer Science Education

In “A Plan to Offer Computer Science Classes in All North Carolina High Schools” (Issues, Winter 2021), Lena Abu-El-Haija and Fay Cobb Payton make a compelling case for how to improve the way computer science (CS) is taught in high schools. Here we want to extend their insightful plans by focusing on how the authors’ well-stated goals can be achieved through a culturally responsive computing lens. We suggest four points of consideration when implementing their CS education plans for Black, brown, and other underserved students.

First, culturally responsive computing, as a frame for developing learners’ CS competencies through asset building, reflection, and connectedness, should inform barometers of success for CS programs. Thus, the proposed high school CS education initiatives should not mimic college programs—that is, they should not measure their effectiveness based on where students go (e.g., employment at top tech companies) but on what students do once they arrive there. Achievement markers should shift to focus on how students use their computing knowledge as a tool to solve challenges affecting them and their communities. We know from developing and implementing our own culturally responsive CS programs (e.g., COMPUGIRLS), success comes only when participants have space and resources to use their newly acquired technology skills in culturally responsive and sustaining ways.

Second, the culturally responsive frame can further inform the curriculum of the proposed high school CS programs. As an early-career Black woman in computing, I (Stewart) can confirm that current CS education focuses on domain-knowledge and how to build systems. Beyond an ethics course late in my undergraduate program, there was little emphasis in my training on the social context surrounding technology, including questions of when and why we build systems. Who the technology might affect and whether the technology yields acceptable justice-oriented outcomes are rarely posed in CS programs. Although the human-computer interaction community pursues answers to these questions, all aspects of the technology-creation pipeline, and by extension CS education, need to critically reflect on these and other contextualized interrogatives.

Achievement markers should shift to focus on how students use their computing knowledge as a tool to solve challenges affecting them and their communities.

Third, culturally responsive computing needs to be embedded in all aspects of the proposed plans. To achieve this, teacher training must include far more than increasing educators’ CS competencies. Computer scientists, educators, and social scientists should collaboratively design preparation programs (and ongoing professional development) that equip teachers with the knowledge of culturally responsive pedagogy. Computer scientists alone cannot ignite the necessary “evolution” the authors describe.

Fourth, and finally, to achieve a culturally responsive vision of CS education, equitable allocation of funding is crucial. Resources must be distributed in a way that considers the sociohistorical realities of racist policies that led to the marginalization of Black and brown students in education, in general, and in computer science, in particular. For example, districts that are the results of redlining should receive more resources to implement CS education programs than districts that benefited from this practice.

In sum, we, too, call on policymakers to apply a culturally responsive, justice-focused perspective to these CS education programs in order to empower the voices of Black and brown innovators. To do anything else will ensure the nation remains limited by its innovations.

Postdoctoral Fellow, Human-Computer Interaction Institute

Carnegie Mellon University

Professor, School of Social Transformation

Executive Director, Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology

Arizona State University

Lena Abu-El-Haija and Fay Cobb Payton lay out both a strong argument and solid steps for why and how computer science (CS) can be a part of every student’s educational pathway. The authors share research describing the lack of quality CS education—especially for Black and Brown students—that poses problems for both the future of North Carolina’s children and the state’s economy (which depends heavily on tech companies in Research Triangle Park). Building on the momentum of recent efforts to address these issues, the authors call for actions that move beyond “episodic intervention” toward “comprehensive change” with a designated CS ambassador to oversee regional implementation, CS accountability measures for rating school success, and more.

Their suggestions are brilliant, much needed, and could set a valuable example for other states nationwide. They also inspired the following questions. First, how can statewide plans ensure buy-in across the educational landscape? I wondered if their plan might allow space for a multistakeholder committee working with the CS ambassadors, consisting of students, teachers, administrators, counselors, researchers, policymakers, and industry professionals? My own state, California, has formed the CSforCA multistakeholder coalition, ensuring that diverse perspectives can inform what decisions get made, for whom, and for what purpose toward sustaining long-term local implementation.

California has formed the CSforCA multistakeholder coalition, ensuring that diverse perspectives can inform what decisions get made, for whom, and for what purpose toward sustaining long-term local implementation.

Relatedly, how can we elevate students’ voices—and particularly those of populations underrepresented in computing—toward shaping more meaningful CS education experiences? Students know best about what motivates their engagement, yet rarely are they invited to shape the direction of schooling. As the authors astutely note, “cultural context, competency, and relevancy in the teaching of the subject are key.” How can youth help drive the movement toward exactly this kind of CS education?

I also believe including diverse stakeholders would ensure that the plan’s school rating system adequately accounts for the different kinds of hurdles that low-resource schools face that wealthier schools don’t, and how that impacts CS education implementation differently.

Additionally, economic drivers for CS education are valuable for gathering diverse communities behind computing education; almost everyone agrees that all people deserve to thrive professionally and financially. However, our research focused on students’ perspectives in CS education reveals that youth are thinking about more than their future careers. They are asking how computing can solve challenging problems that negatively impact communities. CS is a form of power; technology shapes how we communicate, think, purchase goods, and so on, while social media and newsfeeds influence our mental health, ethical convictions, voting habits, and more. Yet CS continues to be controlled by a population that does not reflect the diversity of experiences, values, and perspectives of the nation’s low-income, Black, Brown, Indigenous, female, LGBTQ, disabled, and minoritized communities.

The authors emphasize that a CS education plan is needed to ensure greater diversity in computer science fields. But we also have a moral imperative to question the ethical implications of our increasingly computerized world and prepare our youth to do the same, regardless of whether they pursue computing careers.

Director of Research

UCLA Computer Science Equity Project

Lena Abu-El-Haija and Fay Cobb Payton offer a compelling and comprehensive plan for moving forward. Too few girls, too few Black and Latino students, have access to and participate in computer science courses and pursue college majors and careers in the field. Increasing piecemeal access to computer science one school or district at a time won’t reverse these trends, and the authors are right to call for more comprehensive action. To extend their important argument, I offer one additional rationale for this course of action.

Abu-El-Haija and Cobb Payton rightly observe that there is substantial economic opportunity available to young people with computer science skills. This argument fits within the dominant conception of schools within American public discourse: schools as sites of workforce training and labor market preparation. But the earliest arguments from public school advocates such as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann were not fundamentally economic, but civic. Communities fund public schools because a common preparation for all young citizens poses the brightest possible future for our shared democracy.

US democracy is strongest when it most comprehensively represents its citizenry, and right now, the field of computer science is woefully out of sync with the broader population. Multiple studies of the demographic makeup of the largest technology companies in the United States reveal that these companies are overpopulated with white and Asian men, and these concentrations are more pronounced when analyses focus on engineering jobs. When the digital infrastructure of society is developed by people who fail to represent the full breadth and diversity of the nation, we cannot be surprised when problems and disasters ensue.

A rapidly growing body of scholarship reveals a wide variety of ways that new technologies fail to serve all users: facial recognition tools that can’t identify dark skinned faces, language technologies trained on datasets filled with bias and prejudice, pregnancy tracking apps with no mechanism for responding meaningfully and compassionately to miscarriages. The list goes on and on.

When the digital infrastructure of society is developed by people who fail to represent the full breadth and diversity of the nation, we cannot be surprised when problems and disasters ensue.

It isn’t the case that women or people of color are not interested in opportunities in computing. Indeed, in its earliest days, computing and programming were seen as “women’s work,” requiring attention to detail, organization, and persistence. But then, throughout the 1980s, especially as personal computers entered the marketplace, computing was deliberately marketed to white boys, the composition of graduate programs changed dramatically, and the conditions for our current industry became locked in place: women and minoritized people who tried to enter the computing field faced the twin challenges of learning a complex and challenging field while simultaneously overcoming their outsider status.

We will live in a better society when our computational tools—increasingly essential to our markets, democracy, and social lives—are built by people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. The most promising pathway to that better future, as Abu-El-Haija and Cobb Payton suggest, involves giving all young people an early introduction to computer science and supporting diverse students beyond that introduction.

Associate Professor of Digital Media

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Director, MIT Teaching Systems Lab

Cite this Article

“The Importance of a Computer Science Education.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 3 (Spring 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Spring 2021