With equitable design and a concerted effort, computer science programs can promote equity and empowerment among students.
As computer science continues to grow, it is expected to outpace other fields in job opportunities, with a projected 3.5 million computing jobs open in the US by 2026(1). Computing jobs pay more than double the average US salary(2). But today, only 40% of all schools (and an even lower percentage of elementary schools) teach computer programming or coding(3). Even though nine out of ten parents surveyed want their child to learn computer science(4).
The development of computer science programs offers an opportunity to address inequality in access and achievement among all students. There already exists an opportunity gap in computer science. Women make up only 25% of computing occupations. Of that, Black women make up only 3%, and Hispanic women make up only 1% of computing occupations(5). A Google and Gallup partnership report found that female students have not only less awareness of and exposure to computer science but also lower confidence that they can learn it. An even smaller percentage of girls (12%) expect to pursue a computer science job compared to boys (33%). A substantial majority (78%) of Black parents and guardians report that learning computer science is important or very important, however, Black students are less likely to have access to computer science at the schools they attend. In establishing district computer science programs, a concerted effort is needed to ensure that such an expansion reaches and impacts all students.
Designing an Equitable Computer Science Program
Computer science is expanding, and with it the opportunity to counter opportunity gaps faced by students of color and girls. The following are a few ideas to help design or alter an elementary computer science program with a goal of equitable impact to close the opportunity gaps:
Bring computer science to them — Computer science classes that take place during the regularly scheduled school day ensure that all students have the opportunity to attend. After-school, club, or gifted and talented based programs exclude those who cannot take on extracurricular activities and those who may opt-out due to pre-existing barriers or other family obligations.
Don’t only offer computer science classes as an elective — Require computer science education for the entire student body to expose all students to these crucial 21st-century skills and meaningful experiences that bring joy to their education. Computer science practices like critical thinking and debugging can be integrated into the existing curriculum in virtually all other subjects. And the skills students take from computer science lessons (computational thinking, collaboration, creativity) are transferable to other areas.
Begin in elementary school — Disparities in STEM begin to affect children early in their education. Girls as young as age six pick up on cultural stereotypes and start to believe that specific activities are “not for them” (Bian, 2017). Computer science programs that begin in elementary school are best positioned to reduce this perception. Students experience and learn what computer science is before it becomes an elective, and the option to self-select out is available. We know that students in all demographic groups that spend at least an hour a week learning computer science in school are more likely to say it is important3. Allow your students to explore the basics of programming before they can be affected by either intentional or unconscious bias.
Adopt inclusive curricula — Inclusive computer science education is based on culturally-relevant content delivered by skilled educators in a culturally responsive way. Resources such as the Guide to Inclusive Computer Science Education and EngageCSEdu are useful in ensuring that a curriculum is engaging and encouraging to a diverse student population. They stress the importance of role models, representation, and accessibility in reaching all students. Dr. Maya Israel from Creative Technology Research Lab recommends selecting “a curriculum that has threads of universal design, rather than choosing a narrow curriculum and trying to make it inclusive.”
Garner support from your entire district and the community — Teacher, principal, district, and community support is vitally important to a new initiative’s success. And family influence is a strong predictor of students’ coding attitudes. Yearly family code events (like Family Code Night) are a way to involve families and the community as they learn to code through introductory activities.
Select the right resources to ensure your computer science program will become a widely adopted sustainable part of your district — Use free, open-source coding platforms like code.org, Scratch, and ScratchJr. Avoid the ongoing cost of expensive subscriptions, including “freemium” subscriptions that offer a portion of the curriculum for free, then charge for access to the full curriculum. The BootUp, code.org, and Scratch curricula are high quality and free, so there are no significant costs to support teachers in implementing these projects in their classrooms.
Invest in high-quality ongoing professional development to change teaching practices across the district — Research indicates that one-off workshops do not translate to changed teaching practices6. Professional development needs to be sustained to transform teaching practices, offering multiple opportunities for teachers to engage around a single set of concepts or practices6. So, districts should support and plan for an ongoing, multi-year implementation to see teaching and learning changes.
Teaching students computer science from an early age helps them build logical and analytical skills to apply in academics and beyond. Not only does it build confidence, but it allows them to embrace the beauty of their mistakes and quickly adjust to the challenges and build robust solutions around them. These skills will translate into opportunities for the future and have a lasting impact on the world.
- Guide to Inclusive Computer Science Education
- Google Gallup
- U.S. Department of Labor
- Learning Policy Institute