Dr. Chips in front of water

Breaking Barriers in Computer Science via Culturally Relevant Educational Tools (Part 1 of 3)

By Joseph Chipps, Ed.D.

Dr. Chipps is a computer science teacher at Granada Hills Charter High School as well as an adjunct faculty member of the secondary education department at California State University, Northridge. He has an Ed.D. in Learning Technologies, and wrote this to share his thoughts and expertise on developing culturally relevant educational tools in computer science.

Part 1

Science, technology, engineering, and math are all segregated fields, but computer science is particularly segregated1. Although new K-12 courses are being developed using culturally relevant education tools in order to increase participation among women, BIPOC, English language learners, and those with disabilities (and intersections thereof), the number of students taking a first year college equivalent computing class is still very low. Building culturally relevant educational tools in a first year college-level course is difficult due to the inherent goal of introducing students to the tools and languages of an exclusionary professional community. This issue is not just an issue in computer science. I raise the following question to all teachers: how do we authentically provide culturally relevant education to those who use the shared tools and languages of a professional community that has a history of purposely excluding others? My hope is that students can become part of industry and help change this, but not lose their own culture.

This 3-part blog series is about my attempt to develop culturally relevant educational tools for AP Computer Science A. Additionally, I offer an analysis of how programmer culture is generationally embedded within shared tools and languages, and what needs to change in computer science education to remove barriers for purposefully excluded communities (PEC)s. I should note that I am a white male, and I believe that education is an inherently political act due to white supremacy as an embedded culture within all institutions. I do what I can to change it and work to not perpetuate the problem.

I began teaching at Granada Hills Charter High School (GHCHS) in 2008, and each year between 2008 and 2012, we offered one to two sections of AP Computer Science A with twenty to thirty students per section (4500 students in the school). I took over the class in 2010 when the previous computer science teacher retired, and I was shocked by the lack of female students as well as non-white and non-Asian students. This was not a local phenomenon; rather, enrollment in AP Computer Science A is historically low. According to AP, only 0.05% of the approximately 1.9 million California public high school students took the AP CS A exam in 2017.

In addition, students of color comprise over 60% of California’s high school-aged population, and yet the number of students of color who take the AP Computer Science A exam in California is incredibly low.

California Population (≅1.9 million) AP CS A Test-takers (10,286)
Latinx 53% ≅ 1 million 15% ≅ 1543
African American 6% ≅ 114,000 1% ≅ 103
Native American / Alaska Natives ~1% ≅ 19,000 * = 5

*Only 5 Native American/Alaska Natives passed the test out of the 10,268 test-takers from California in 2018.

Low participation rates among students of color have resulted in computer science not being offered at 75% of schools nationwide with the highest percentage of PECs and only 2% of schools with large ratios of PECs offering AP Computer Science A2.

The CS10K Initiative3 provided a space and opportunity for new courses such as Exploring Computer Science4 and AP Computer Science Principles5 to transform computer science education for the purpose of increasing participation among PECs, and these courses have demonstrably been successful. In 2013, I began offering Exploring Computer Science at GHCHS, and in 2016, I introduced AP Computer Science Principles. In the 2019-2020 school year, over 800 students took computer science at GHCHS; the ethnicity of students parallels that of the overall school demographics, and we have a 3:2 ratio of men to women (we are still working on that). Between 2010 and 2019, GHCHS saw a 1700% increase in students taking computer science.

The College Board also notes that since the introduction of AP Computer Science Principles in 2016, AP computer science classes (cumulative) have observed a 343% increase in Black students, a 315% increase in Latinx students, and a 257% increase among female students. Courses like Exploring Computer Science and AP Computer Science Principles were developed based on current research in equity-oriented computer science education, and were purposefully designed to increase participation.

So what is the big deal about developing a culturally responsive curriculum for AP Computer Science A? If it was done for other courses, why is AP Computer Science A still a problem? For that, we need to understand what culturally responsive education means in computer science.

The development and consequential nuances of culturally relevant education is important in realizing the inherent differences between building curriculum for Exploring Computer Science and AP Computer Science A. When I received my credential, multicultural education was still being taught as a framework for cultural diversity; however, little attention was paid to the inherent biases and belief systems of those who developed curriculum and facilitated learning experiences, and multicultural education was criticized for its reliance on cultural symbols such as food and holidays6. Additionally, despite good intentions, those cultural symbols tended to be byproducts of bias, and further flattened groups to stereotypes and single stories7.

In response to the criticisms of multiculturalism, two frameworks emerged: culturally responsive teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally responsive teaching empowers students by increasing awareness of their lived experiences and acknowledging their sociocultural frames of reference in order to situate experiential learning within the needs of students8,9. Alternatively, culturally relevant pedagogy10,11 refers to the beliefs and approaches that guide curriculum development12. Culturally relevant pedagogy aims to use students’ cultural references and positioning within systems of power to guide curriculum and transform learning experiences by challenging social inequities11.

Both of these frameworks use a social justice approach to education in its view of student identity and experience as an asset. It should be noted that culturally responsive teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy are used somewhat interchangeably in literature, so, going forward, I will use the term culturally relevant education (CRE)12 as an umbrella term that covers both approaches. In my next post, I’ll discuss using Exploring Computer Science (ECS) and AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP) that were developed to be culturally relevant using ethnocomputing and culturally situated design tools.

Read Part 2 of the series.

Read Part 3 of the series.

  1. Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Holmes, J.J. and Nao, K. Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010.
  2. Margolis, J., & Goode, J. (2016). Ten lessons for computer science for all. ACM Inroads, 7(4), 52–56. https://doi.org/10.1145/2988236
  3. Astrachan, O., Cuny, J., Stephenson, C., & Wilson, C. (2011, March). The CS10K project: mobilizing the community to transform high school computing. In Proceedings of the 42nd ACM technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 85-86).
  4. Goode, J., Chapman, G., & Margolis, J. (2012). Beyond curriculum: The exploring computer science program. ACM Inroads, 3(2), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.1145/2189835.2189851
  5. Cuny, J. (2015). Transforming K-12 computing education: AP® computer science principles. ACM Inroads, 6(4), 58-49. https://doi.org/10.1145/2832916
  6. Banks, J. A. (2013). The construction and historical development of multicultural education, 1962–2012. Theory into Practice, 52(sup1), 73-82. doi: 10.1080/00405841.2013.795444
  7. Kim, S., & Slapac, A. (2015). Culturally responsive, transformative pedagogy in the transnational era: Critical perspectives. Educational Studies, 51(1), 17-27. doi:10.1080/00131946.2014.983639
  8. Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed).Multicultural Education Series. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  9. Gay, G. (2013) Teaching to and through cultural diversity. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 48-doi: 10.1111/curi.12002
  10. Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). What we can learn from multicultural education research. Educational Leadership, 51(8), 22-26. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ508261
  11. Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: Aka the remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74-84. doi:10.17763/haer.84.1.p2rj131485484751
  12. Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163-206. doi: 10.3102/0034654315582066

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