Design to Disrupt: Making Space for Every Student in CS

Feb 24 · 5 min read

As #BlackHistoryMonth draws to a close and #WomenHistoryMonth begins, Dr. Nicki Washington illustrates Computer Science with the whom it should represent, along with the why these identities matter.

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In 2011, my team of six instructors led a yearlong CS course for 120 Black/Latinx middle-school students in Washington, DC. After first-day introductions, we asked them to name a computer scientist. Despite six Black men/women in front of them, we heard only three names: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. It was then that I realized if they didn’t see us as computer scientists, then how would they ever be able to see themselves as one? We knew we had work to do.

We spent the entire year dismantling the narrative that CS was restricted to White and Asian men and reinforcing how not only were they computer scientists, but also change agents. Students learned much more than what CS was, but also whom it should represent and why these identities mattered.

We were fortunate to have a team that didn’t fit the “traditional” narrative leading that effort. However, this won’t always be the case. As we continue to make strides in CS education, the following strategies can help to ensure that the who and why are prioritized, regardless of the student or instructor.

“See” The Students

Diversity is often painted with broad strokes. For example, if the goal is increasing the participation of girls in CS, then a “one-size-fits-all” approach is inadequate. Experiences vary based on all parts of students’ identities (e.g. race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability). Imagine how much easier it is to persist when you feel “seen” and can unapologetically take up space without having to constantly explain yourself. If decision-makers are unwilling to acknowledge and account for the vast range of student identities (especially when they differ from their own), then they’re chasing windmills.

Be Audacious

It’s easy to follow the common blueprint for what’s worked (or hasn’t). Where are the gaps? What’s your “game changer” idea that hasn’t been done? It doesn’t have to be tested to be impactful. For example, retention is still an issue at the undergraduate level, specifically for students from marginalized groups. These issues usually stem from non-technical challenges (e.g. sense of belonging, prejudice, and discrimination) that impact academic performance. How can that translate to K-12 CS education? In addition to CS fundamentals, why aren’t we teaching how to be better allies/advocates? What about parents/caregivers? During that year, a middle-school father told me he wanted to help his son at home, but he knew nothing about CS. Cross-generational opportunities to extend learning beyond the classroom to “table talk” is a powerful way to reach not only students, but entire families.

Teach Students Cultural Competence

The “Impacts of Computing” concept of the K-12 Framework discusses (by grade band) the inequities that technology can create. Taking this a step further, we should also teach how a lack of cultural competence impacts technology development (thereby leading to these inequities). Incorporating discussions around the “why” gets students thinking about how being more inclusive in the development process can circumvent these issues. Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings highlights cultural competence as one of the three tenets of culturally relevant pedagogy for educators. However, we must also teach students the importance of it to ensure that they become better allies/advocates. It’s assumed (even at the undergraduate level) that students already possess cultural competence. However, students don’t know how to fix what they haven’t been taught is broken.

Seek, Trust, and Credit The Expertise of People from Marginalized Groups

As a Black woman in CS, I can affirm that most Black men/women have been living and breathing this work since we typed our first “Hello World.” Our messages (like people from other historically disenfranchised groups) just weren’t amplified nationally. As you do this work, who did you consult? How did you leverage their input? Fun fact: We aren’t hard to find. We’ve often just been marginalized, even in this space. Given this, it’s imperative that you acknowledge and leverage the expertise that comes from not only academic and professional, but also personal experiences. Most important, don’t just contact us to “pick our brains.” If you value our perspectives and work enough to request assistance, then respect our contributions, bring us to the table, and properly credit and amplify our voices.

Intention != Impact

Doing this work properly requires being intentional with every detail, from the team assembled, to the content created, training provided, and delivery to students. It requires a level of forethought and understanding that student success is not based on simply mastering CS fundamentals. I’ve been told that this makes some “uncomfortable,” which they aren’t willing to do. However, when has actual change occurred in this country by maintaining the majority’s comfort? We educators and leaders can’t drop the ball under the guise of “well-intending” solutions that prioritize the comfort of some at the expense of many. Our discomfort in designing for diversity, equity, and inclusion pales in comparison to the discomfort marginalized students (and professionals) experience daily when we don’t do the work.

We should always choose to disrupt.

About the Author: Dr. Nicki Washington is an associate professor of computer science and the author of Unapologetically Dope: Lessons for Black Women and Girls on Surviving and Thriving in the Tech Field. Described as her “love letter to Black women and girls,” Unapologetically Dope discusses the unspoken lessons that are necessary to persist in computing+tech, yet are never taught in classes or textbooks (e.g. tackling imposter syndrome, finding allies, and assembling one’s tribe). She previously spent nine years at Howard University as the first Black female faculty member in the Department of Computer Science. Her professional experience also includes The Aerospace Corporation and IBM.

Dr. Washington has led partnerships with the Howard University Middle School of Math and Science, Google, Exploring Computer Science, and Washington, DC Public Schools to introduce CS courses and teacher professional development across Washington, DC high schools. She was also a lead writer for the K-12 CS Framework (led by and South Carolina K-12 Computer Science and Digital Literacy Standards.

At the undergraduate and industry levels, Dr. Washington’s efforts to recruit and retain students/graduates of color in computing include creating and implementing the first Googler-in-Residence program at Howard University in 2013. This project led to Googler-in-Residence implementations at other HBCUs (including Morehouse, Spelman, NC A&T, Fisk, and Hampton). Her current work focuses on addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in the tech industry by measuring and improving the cultural competence of students in undergraduate computing departments nationwide, including the development of assessments and courses dedicated to this work.

She is a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University (B.S., ’00) and North Carolina State University (M.S., ’02; Ph.D., ’05), becoming the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. at the university and 2019 Computer Science Hall of Fame Inductee. She is a native of Durham, NC.

Twitter Handle, @dr_nickiw Website,


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