The need for an expansion in computer science education is clear. But, as the popularity of coding grows, the equity gap is growing even faster. What does equity look like in computer science education? How does this differ from equality and access? And what can be done about it?
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 occupations5. A Google and Gallup partnership report found that female students not only have less awareness of and exposure to computer science, but also lower confidence that they can learn it. Black students are less likely to have access to computer science at the schools they attend and Black and Hispanic students experience less exposure to computers overall. In establishing and developing 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
To design or alter an elementary computer science program with a goal of equitable impact, a few ideas will help to close the gaps that are apparent today:
- 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 are unable to 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.
Age-appropriate projects in easy-to-use, block-based programming languages (in free programs like Scratch and ScratchJr) allow students to create and share interactive stories, animations, games, art, music, and more through problem-solving and other fundamental computer science concepts and practices. 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, 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 are vitally important to the success of a new initiative. 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.
- Apply for funding and sponsorships that put equity at the forefront of support — For example, the BootUp + Amazon Future Engineer Computer Science Sponsorship focuses on increasing access to computer science education for underserved and underrepresented elementary school students. A priority on district-wide implementation ensures implementation is done equitably and that participant demographics align to district demographics as a whole.
Designing a Sustainable Computer Science Program
Selecting the right resources can ensure that your computer science program will become a sustainable part of your district.
- Choose a sustainable curriculum — To ensure that the majority of district costs are going toward educators and professional development, 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 their curriculum for free and then charge for the full curriculum. The BootUp project-based curriculum will always remain free, so there are no significant costs to support teachers as they implement these projects in their classrooms year after year. Code.org and Scratch also offer free curricula.
- Invest in high-quality ongoing professional development — Research shows that effective professional development requires 50-80 hours of support, including instruction, practice, and coaching, to achieve mastery (French, 1997; Banilower, 2002; Yoon et al., 2007). So, districts should plan for an ongoing, multi-year implementation to meet that threshold.
- Apply for funding or sponsorships that provide ongoing support over multiple years — The BootUp + Amazon Future Engineer sponsorship funds ongoing onsite elementary professional development for three full years.
The field of computer science is expanding and with it the opportunity to counter opportunity gaps faced by students of color and girls. With a concerted effort to reduce barriers and reach all students, computer science programs can promote equity and empowerment among students.
Teaching students computer science from an early age helps them build logical and analytical skills that they can 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 strong solutions around them. These skills will translate into opportunities for the future and have a lasting impact on the world.