Fostering Interest in Computer Science

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Introduction

Though the field of computer science (CS) continues to boom, computer scientists that are not White, Asian, and male have become fewer and farther between. African-Americans and Latinos make up 29% of America’s workforce but only 12% of CS professionals. Women are half as likely as men to enter the field. As America enters an increasingly digital age, this lopsided representation poses a problem both to those who are underrepresented and to the nation at-large. Those not learning computer science miss out on basic career skills, lucrative economic opportunities, and boundless creative possibilities. And when a workforce “inventing the future” is made up of only a sliver of those whom that “future” will impact, the digital age is more likely to reproduce the gendered, racial, and economic inequities that cut through America’s semblances of unity.

To justify this issue of underrepresentation, some have blamed an intrinsic lack of interest among those who are not in the discipline. In July of 2017, a memo by ex-Google employee James Damore roiled Silicon Valley by arguing that the dearth of women at Google was due to women’s innate lack of interest in the field. Others followed suit by weighing in that “common sense” tells us women gravitate toward “people-oriented,” not “thing-oriented” professions.  Long before then, Jane Margolis and her team of researchers from UCLA documented how computer science classes in Los Angeles schools excluded African-Americans, Latinos, female-identifying students on the basis that students from those racial and gender backgrounds were inherently less likely to be interested in learning CS.

Pushing back against these deficit discourses is research highlighting the intense amount of interest amongst low-income, non-white students and their families. Since 2015, Google & Gallup have consistently shown that low-income families have the highest demand for computer science education. Black students are in fact more likely than White students to express interest in learning CS, and Black parents are the most likely to say that they want their child to become a computer scientist. Hispanic students are the most likely group to report being “very interested” in learning computer science, and are more likely to pursue opportunities to learn CS outside of school than any other ethnic group. By all accounts, those who deficit discourses claim are “uninterested in learning CS” are those who in fact have the most interest.

Despite both sides of the debate being polarized in their view of “who has interest,” they share a common consensus: that interest is a static trait. Either students have it or they don’t, and it changes only marginally over time. Among both camps, little attention is paid to the way culture, classrooms, and relationships might construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct students’ interest across time and space. Neither side asks what kinds of classrooms are likely to foster interest in computer science, or what elements of culture could make computer science interesting to everyone. What if interest is socially constructed in the classroom? What would this mean for designing a computer science education that invites everyone into the field?

These questions, though given little emphasis, are more critical to justice in computer science than ferocious debates over who has interest and who doesn’t. When we ask “How are students interested?” instead of “Which students are interested?”, stakeholders in the field of CS education can begin to design an education that intends to engage diverse perspectives and lived experiences. My own experience as a middle school computer science teacher lends itself well to this goal. In analyzing my experience, I have discovered a number of cultural factors that have fostered and diminished interest among students whose interest has previously been viewed as fixed. These factors are diverse, ranging from the intentions of a space to the unconscious biases held by teachers. By sharing the ways in which these factors work to both foster and deconstruct interest, I aim to contribute to dialogue about how to design a better computer science education: a computer science education for all.