Design to Disrupt: Making Space for Every Student in CS

CSforALL Stories
Published in
5 min readFeb 24, 2020

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…

CSforALL Stories

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