When it comes to the digital divide, often the focus is on how lack of internet service and basic technology will hurt students’ academic performance. This is particularly true during the pandemic, when most schools are operating online.
But as a STEM educator at one of the nation’s elite historically Black colleges, I see another negative effect of the digital divide: racial disparities in the field of computer science.
Computer science is one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying fields. So if students from certain groups are being shut out of the field, it means that public education is failing in its role as the great equalizer.
I see some ways for that to change. But first, a few statistics.
The color of computer science
When you look at computer science, just 8.9% of the more than 71,000 bachelor’s degrees awarded in this field in 2017 went to Black students, and only 10.1% went to Latino students, federal data show. This is significantly less than the percentage of Black and Latino people in the United States: 13.4% and 18.5%, respectively.
The numbers are similarly bleak in the tech industry. At Google, only 9.6% of its U.S. workforce is Black or Latino. At Apple, only 14% of its tech workforce is Black or Latino. This is particularly concerning given that those two groups make up 30% of the U.S. labor force.
These disparities do not begin when a student steps onto a college campus and chooses a major. Rather, they begin in elementary, middle and high school.
This is why, in 2016, then-President Barack Obama launched Computer Science for All. That same year, the College Board launched a new Advanced Placement course – AP Computer Science Principles – specifically designed to increase the opportunity for all students to learn computer science. The course has been highly successful in its mission. The number of students taking the end-of-course exam – which could potentially enable them to get college credit for their high school computer science classes – more than doubled over the first three years, from 43,780 in 2017 to 94,360 in 2019. However, the data also show that these efforts to increase access have done little to shrink the gap between Black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers.
In 2019, research shows, only 7% of students taking the AP Computer Science Principles exam were Black and only 20% were Latino, compared to 66% for white and Asian students. This is disturbing considering that 14.7% of U.S. high school students are Black and 26.8% are Latino. Also, just taking a course does not mean students will master the material. In AP Computer Science Principles, the exam pass rate for Black and Latino students averages 51% compared to 80% for white and Asian students.
In my view, this data shows that successful participation in computer science requires much more than just making computer science classes available. What follows are five things that I believe are critical to making a difference in who will be able to secure the computer science jobs of the future.
1. High-quality teachers
As with any other subject, it is important that all students are taught by someone with a strong foundation in, and passion for, the content being taught. Hiring teachers with a background can be difficult since they have so many other job options, typically with higher pay.
Many states are trying to figure out how to enable more teachers to teach computer science without lowering the quality of instruction. For example, in Georgia, when state legislators passed a law that requires computer science to be taught in all middle and high schools, the state allocated money for grants to recruit and train more computer science teachers.
2. Culturally authentic classrooms
In order for students to truly connect with computer science, they must see themselves and their community reflected in the class material. This could be through simple things, such as putting up posters of people who share their backgrounds and who have advanced in STEM careers.
But it could also be done through creating more culturally relevant lessons. For example, a Georgia Tech program called EarSketch teaches high school and college students to use computer science to create music. At Johnson C. Smith University, students use sports analytics to examine the performance of the school’s basketball team in order to help the team improve on court.
That is one of the aims of a computer science curriculum called CAPaCITY. The curriculum uses computer science to teach students how to advocate for themselves and their communities by allowing them to select and solve problems of their own choosing.
3. A computer and high-speed internet at home
In order to be successful in a computer science class, a student must have access to a computer and high-speed internet at home. Unfortunately, many do not. This limits their ability to develop the educational foundation necessary for long-term success in the field.
Recognizing this fact, various cities and businesses have begun to provide free or low-cost internet service to help.
4. Access to diverse industry mentors
Since people of color are woefully underrepresented in the tech industry, employees of color at some tech companies have created affinity groups, such as the Black Googlers Network and Hispanic Googlers Network, that seek to encourage students of color to pursue careers in the tech industry. Unfortunately, this extra work often goes unpaid and can lead to executives believing that the “diversity problem” is solved. A better approach would be to place more money behind the design and implementation of these kinds of mentoring programs, including funding to see how well they work.
5. Inclusive after-school and summer programs
Whether it’s the after-school robotics team or the summer coding camp, extracurricular programs are a great way to get students interested in computer science. Unfortunately, these summer camps may cost more than some students can afford. Plus, a lot of kids would rather not be the only Black or Latino kid in the room. Although there are programs focused on diversifying computer science through specialty programs for Black and Latino students, all programs should be inclusive.
One example of an effort to create more inclusive programs is from the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing. Rather than focus on one group, the initiative is meant to engage diverse students in programs that celebrate their differences.
Author Bio: Tamara Pearson is Director, Center of Excellence for Minority Women in STEM at Spelman College