Administrators Can Increase Diversity in Computer Science by Listening to Teachers, New Study Says

To make the computer science industry more diverse and inclusive, schools need to consider educators’ perspectives, new research from the University of Michigan and Purdue University indicates.

Researchers interviewed 23 computer science teachers to find what issues and barriers of diversity are in their classrooms.

According to one teacher in the study, some female students don’t take web design classes “because they think it’s too challenging or too riveting.” The lack of gender diversity has become problematic for the computing and technology workforce and can be traced back to the lack of female participation in computing in schools, according to the study.

In other instances, students had difficulty recognizing their own potential by attributing their good grades and work to their instructor.

“You’re a really good teacher. That’s why I’m doing well,” one teacher quoted a student as saying. “No, I’m not that good. You’re really good at what you’re doing.”

Only 22 percent of students who took the advanced placement computer science exam in 2015 were female students and 13 percent were underrepresented students, mirroring the current makeup of technology firms in the United States, according to federal research.

To counter the disparities, former President Barack Obama’s administration launched a “Computer Science for All” Initiative in 2016. The program was designed to expand computer science education in U.S. public schools in response to the rapid growth of the digital economy.

Despite the government’s efforts and the increased enrollment in computer science courses since 2015, the number of women and underrepresented students who complete undergraduate degrees in the field is not growing, according to the Purdue study.

The wide disparities in underrepresented students’ access to computer science is due to structural and social barriers, including technological skills, purpose of use, stereotypes, lack of role models, curriculum materials, or unconscious biases that discourage individuals from taking computer science classes.

Isolation was one of the main barriers to diversity teachers observed, the study found.

“You come into a class of 20 kids and five of them are these boys who have been programming since they were 10. And they spout all the buzzwords and it intimidates everybody else in the class,” one teacher said.

Creating inclusive classrooms and increasing a sense of belonging will help bridge the disparity gap, according to the research. The participants voiced the opinion that welcoming environments provided students with opportunities to develop a sense of identity aligned with the computing community.

“Understanding computer science teachers’ views on barriers to diversity in computer science classroom is key in identifying how teachers and administrators can support students during throughout their K-12 experience and learn how to recruit and retain students in computer science,” the study indicates.

Sarah Gretter, PhD, senior learning experience designer at Michigan State University, is the study’s lead author. The study was published in January in the Transactions on Computing Education journal.