Saturday, July 4, 2009

Google Scholars' Retreat Tech Talks: CS Education

The tech talk I signed up for the afternoon at the Google Scholars' Retreat wasn't technical per se, but rather a discussion about how to improve the presence of minorities in CS Education. This is a topic I've been lookin at for a long time, but there were a few tidbits that brought new ideas to the table for me.

The format of this talk was to work in small groups after hearing a few statistics about the state of things. The first thing I asked my group members was what kept other minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians - all other groups targeted by the scholarships in addition to women) out of computing. It sounds like it's essentially the same reasons as for women - the field looks unattractive to those worried about being nerdy, etc. For example, apparently young African American males believe that you will "have an ugly wife" if you get into computers. Image can be everything for many young people.

With that out of the way, the brainstorming for outreach programs and other ideas to help the problem began. One thing that I felt would really help was to make it easier for teachers to integrate computer science into the regular school curriculum. This should result in students being more comfortable with the subject by the time they finish high school, and hopefully give a better image to the field. But teachers are stretched too thin as it is, so asking them to learn a whole new module on computer science is not that simple. It is also difficult to fit a new module into the school year. Inevitably, new stuff at the end gets dropped first. So, instead, the proposal is to fit computer science concepts into the curriculum students already learn. It's kind of like a head fake, because they don't really need to know they are learning computer science. Instead, they are learning algorithms and techniques for dealing with data, or analyzing human-computer interfaces from a social sciences point of view, or whatever - there are many possibilities. Learning computer science does not have to equate to learning how to write code.

Another idea brought up by someone in another group suggested that just by existing, we provide role models to show that women (or whatever other minorities) really are in computer science, and that we are nice, normal people who don't have ugly spouses). I put it out there that this is a case where if we "build it", they won't necessarily come, so how do we ensure that our "being out there" is actually noticed? I think we need the CSI of computer science, with smart, attractive women doing some awesome computing on the show. Someone mentioned that they noticed just the right kind of characters of this sort while watching Saturday morning cartoons with their niece. I'd love to write some short stories or even a novel about young women in computer science, solving interesting problems with their skills (sort of like a modern Nancy Drew). Maybe the next generation will grow up without the negative stereotypes as a result, but I think we need to do more today. We need to put ourselves out there in such a way that they can't miss us.

Those are the major items that I can remember, though there were many good ideas thrown around. If you have any other ideas to encourage more minorities to consider computing careers, whether I've discussed them on this blog before or not, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

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