From why to how: #CSforInclusion takes a deep dive into computer science strategy & practice

CSforPGH’s special series shares the intentional acts of inclusion that can help us redefine the look of Silicon Valley

This November and December, CSforPGH reprised its #CSforInclusion series, offering a special focus on diversity, access, and inclusion in computer science education.

Building on last year’s series of the same name (which included three Twitter chats and an in-person convening), this year presented three virtual workshops on relevant, inclusive approaches to computer science teaching and learning. Experts from early learning, secondary, and higher education led the sessions and shared a range of ideas and practices for students of all ages.

In a nutshell: If last year’s #CSforInclusion introduced the why of inclusivity in CS, this year tackled the how.

“We’re here to explore the possibilities of intentional acts of inclusion…ways in which we can create a pipeline of learners that look a little different than [those in today’s] Silicon Valley,” said Remake Learning’s CSforPGH lead LaTrenda Sherrill.

If you missed this deep dive into inclusive computer science, read on for a recap and recording from each session.

Pressing Pause to Play: Personas, Places, and Possibilities
Led by Shimira Williams | November 11, 2020

Like so much in early learning, “play is the most fundamental part” of sparking children’s interest in computer science, according to workshop lead Shimira Williams. In this session, she offered concrete ideas for applying computer science concepts to early learning play, particularly for learners from underserved communities.

Williams is the founder CC Busy, a start-up that develops digital voice assistants for childcare providers. She has worked at the intersection of technology and early learning for a decade.

“The real question I’ve been trying to answer for about the last ten years is: ‘How do we fill children’s environments with materials that create powerful ideas,’” and in turn, she asked, how can we support adults and educators in recognizing those powerful ideas?

It’s the critical adult role that makes play a successful strategy in computer science early learning. Grownups must be active in a child’s play, Williams explained, connecting and modeling relevant experiences for young learners while also providing ample opportunity for digital and analog computational skill-building within the home, formal learning environments, and the greater community.

Williams also shared that eventually, after observing “certain groups of people didn’t have the opportunity or the time or the space” for essential early learning play, her core question evolved to: “How do we intentionally incorporate, model, and give people access to the tools they need to think about computational thinking, especially in underserved communities?”

In answer, her workshop went on to review different strategies for building digital citizenship and shared real-world activities to kick-start computer science learning—like creating a tangram puzzle of Missy Elliot, building a collaborative playlist, or even creating an animated dance routine.

“Our goal is to make [leaners] think, to ask the right questions, to give them the right materials to spark the right ideas,” she said. “When we think of computer science, everyone usually thinks of code, but computer science is so much more.”

Watch the full workshop
Visit Shimira’s Padlet for more resources

CSforALL Through Advanced Placement Exam Support
Led by Muriel Alim | November 17, 2020

The second workshop shifted focus to high school learners and how districts can build defined pathways to support computer science learning, career readiness, and gender and ethnic diversity within the field—even if they’re starting from scratch.

National Math & Science Initiative (NMSI) senior program manager Muriel Alim interviewed a panel of teachers from local NMSI partner schools. These partners share NMSI’s goal of increasing access to and achievement in rigorous STEM courses, and ultimately, want to increase the pool of students ready for STEM majors and careers.

Partnerships like this, which help schools implement computer science course pathways, can quickly build diverse computer science interests within a school culture.

Computer science teacher Kevin Gallagher of Keystone Oaks High School recounted his school’s exponential growth in course enrollment, which happened over only a few years:

“We started out with 25 students the first year…and now we’ve increased to over 135 students. The AP program went from 5 [students], to 50, to 80 in three years. Our first year had six females and one student of color out of 25 students and now…about half of my students are females and a third are students of color, which is pretty extraordinary considering our population of students of color is about 14%.”

David Hairston of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Brashear High School also shared his experience building a more purposeful computer science path within his school and district. When he started teaching computer science, he said, “We [didn’t] have any classes that led up to AP [Computer Science]…so something wasn’t working.” But today, all students have access to incremental and integrated courses, beginning in 9th grade and running through 12th grade.

What’s more, these pathways branch off into different specialties that students can explore based on their interests. If they don’t want to study strictly programming, for instance, they can focus on web design or app or gaming development, among others.

Through these efforts, Brashear has established itself as a computer science magnet but still offers robust options to both magnet and non-magnet students. They now “have the structure to be able to offer programming to a lot of kids,” said Hairston.

But, these advances aren’t without some remaining challenges. For one, Hairston still sees what he calls “a male-female cultural difference in terms of…programming.”

“We still have very few women who are advancing in computer science careers,” added Alim. She cited the declining percentage of female computer scientists from the mid-1990s to today and noted that “the percent will continue to decline if we do nothing.” However, hope remains in the form of middle and high school intervention: “We know the biggest drop off…is between ages 13 and 17, and that’s why we’re here today.”

The conversation continued with Alim, the panel, and guests diving deeper into how they built their schools’ computer science pathways, how this work has progressed, and how they’re assessing program application today.

Watch the full workshop

Fireside Chat: Centering Computer Science and Race
Led by Dr. Richard Purcell | December 2, 2020

The final workshop zoomed out to offer a historical perspective on computer science, technology, and race. Carnegie Mellon English professor Dr. Richard Purcell led the session, focusing on cultural and historical context as a strategy for inclusivity in computer science education.

Dr. Purcell studies culture, most recently looking at connections between Black artists, work, and labor.

“I’m not a computer scientist…I’m interested in culture and the way that I get at [that]…is through thinking about representation…and discourse.”

As Dr. Purcell explained, the pandemic has also increased the need for a contextual approach to computer science and workforce readiness.

“The pandemic has radically changed the way we all work and raised the question of what is essential work. The connection to computer science, computational thinking, algorithms, labor-saving technologies, all of these things, has radically changed the way we work now, but also…has a very long history in the 20th century,” he said.

During the workshop, Dr. Purcell presented a primer on humanities-based research in race, technology, and culture, then gave attendees time to “get their virtual hands dirty.” Small groups used primary and secondary source materials to study conversations Americans were having about race, Blackness, and automation in the 1950s-60s.

“History provides so much for us, but I don’t think people necessarily understand that every single time they go into these conversations [about inclusion],” added Sherrill. “Context matters. How do we pull that into a computer science lesson appropriately? That ‘how’ piece is always where people struggle.”

Later in the session, Dr. Purcell and Sherrill began to explore elements of this elusive “how”: Are there professional development possibilities? Perhaps history teachers could align with computer science teachers for a week of special instruction.

In any case, by highlighting the contextual depth that’s been lacking in current computer science teaching, educators have the potential to open up entirely new lines of inquiry for learners—who, in turn, have the power to develop new, better, and more inclusive technologies.

Watch the full workshop
Download the citation & skimming guide for breakout groups

Want to join the #CSforInclusion conversation? Learn more about Remake Learning’s CSforPGH working group here.