Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Teachers and Role Models in CS Education

There was an interesting bit of chatting going on over Twitter about the importance of teachers as role models over the weekend. A lot of people think that having more computer science teachers of color and more female teachers would lead to more diversity in students. It’s a theory but I haven’t seen much evidence that female teachers have many more female students than men do. Not as a general rule that is. There may be some data out there but I haven't seen it.

There is a real shortage of computer science teachers of color and I don’t know much about their enrollment either. But at least one person on Twitter was adamant that having a teacher “that looks like you” is critical for women and minorities. And it is hard to argue with someone who speaks from their own personal experience.

So what is a middle aged white computer science teacher to do?

Let me start by saying that I strongly believe that male teachers have an important role is changing the culture of computing. Computing has become, in many companies and even universities, a female unfriendly, even misogynist environment. We can theorize all we want about how it became that way but I think it is clear that it is the case. And it is hurting our ability to attack and retain smart talented women into the field.

It is important that we recognize that computing is a field that desperately needs more diversity. We need more women. We need more people of color. We need more people who would not fit seamlessly in with the characters in the Big Bang Theory. Changing the environment is key, in my opinion, to getting this diversity.

All teachers can do a part to make this happen. A lot of attitudes are developed by school aged students. We can all do our part to make students comfortable and help them to feel safe in our computer labs. We, especially male teachers, can make it clear to male students that making the girls feel uncomfortable is not ok. We can make it clear to girls that they are just as good, just as important and just as valuable as anyone else.

Some people think that means that girls and boys should be treated differently. Some people think it means that boys and girls should be treated exactly the same. I think it means that all students have to be treated as unique individuals with individual needs, individual strengths and weaknesses. It means not writing off any student because they are not easy to teach or they don’t fit a specific pattern or personality. You know, it’s like being a real teacher in a real classroom.

We also have to make all students aware of people of diverse characteristics – race, color, religion, and more – who are succeeding in computing. No one can be a role model for all students but we can all share individuals who can be role models for everyone. I’m never going to be a young female of color. What I can be is a white male who respects young women of color and is accepting and encouraging of them (and everyone else) in my classroom and my chosen career.

I can share stories of women I have worked with. I can use videos from groups that work specifically with young women and who provide mentors to those young women. I can invite people into my classroom. Any women want to Skype in to my classroom and tell their stories? I think I’d like to try that next semester.

An important motto at the school where I teach is that “every student is known, valued and treasured.” I can make sure that is true in my lab/classroom. I can make sure that treating any student without proper respect is not acceptable. I can make sure that all students know I am on their side. I may not be able to be a role model that looks like them to the girls or to the minority students. One thing I can be is a role model for the white male students on how they should respect those who are different from them. I think we can all do that. And maybe if we all do that we can change the environment beyond our schools over time. It’s worth a try.


Leigh Ann said...

A lesson from Girls Who Code is that the teacher doesn't need to represent the of all of the students under their care. They need to employ sound teaching principles and be encouraging to all students.

What is important is that students SEE examples of in the field. And its even less than just the minority group - its more important that the student self identifies with the example. For a picture, a poster, etc. that is most easily done by the surface features (gender, ethnicity, age) but for any interaction that goes on longer (class speaker, highlight as a part of a lesson or research project) you can find self identification with personal stories or likes/dislikes.

For our girls in the first GWC summer cohort it became important that they identified and could see a path to "I want to be her when I grow up".

hutch said...

Alfred, I am in full agreement with your blog post. As a male computer science teacher I feel that it IS possible to provide a welcoming and encouraging environment for a diverse group of students including girls and visible minorities.

What strategies do I use?
I invite interesting speakers from industry or post-secondary into the classroom. Usually I'm able to find female speakers for this role which is great. If you don't have contacts simply send an email to local IT companies and ask for volunteers (it actually works).

I also post images around the classroom that demonstrate CS is a multi-gender/cultural environment.

I put a stop to any negative comments/actions between students in the class (should go without saying... but extremely important).

I expose students to the significant contributions of females in IT including Grace Hopper and others. It is also good to explain the attributes of CEOs of IT companies such as IBM and Yahoo. There is an excellent PBS documentary called "Top Secret Rosies" that does an excellent job of exposing the contributions of women in WWII in the US and the lack of recognition that they received.

I also agree with you that having separate classes and activities by gender should not be required as long as the classroom is truly a welcoming and supporting environment.

Alfred Thompson said...

I bought a copy of Top Secret Rosies and show it to my classes. It makes a great discussion topic as well.

Garth said...

Montana is CS backward in many ways. Just look at the APCS stats report that was just published. Zero Montana schools offer any AP CS and only eleven kids took the test, I assume they were home schooled or independent study kids. But of the 5 CS teachers at our local community college, 2 are women and the CS department chair at the local university is a woman. Hooray for Montana.

Women in CS seems to be the same type of discussion as the men in elementary education discussion. Is there a nature or nurture thing going on? For years there has been a drive to get more men in elementary education so young boys without a man in the family would have male role models. That has not worked too well either. Does the teacher as a role model even influence students? Does a male teacher turn girls off to CS? Does it work the other way? Does a female CS teacher turn boys off to CS? After watching some CS teachers teach, CS teachers turn kids off to CS. At the moment qualified CS teachers who are not going to drive kids out of CS with boredom are in such short supply that race, color or creed should not be a consideration. We need warm blooded and willing. If the need for CS teachers goes up and universities start offering CS Ed degrees and if a CS Ed degree can earn a person a decent opportunity to get a satisfying job that pays then the number of not white male teachers will go up. Until then we have to go with the warm blooded and willing.

I attended a CS education and business shindig a couple of months ago. It was interesting to look at the age of the group. Except for a couple of entrepreneur startup game company people, it was all old farts. CS education needs some young (young to me is 20s and early 30s) warm blooded and willing. Preferably extroverted athletes, not introverted geeks who identify with the Big Bang Theory. Ain’t going to happen any time soon.

Cait Sydney Pickens said...

Alfred! I love this post. It covers a lot of things I've been reflecting on lately. I wrote a comment for you, but then it exploded into a novel. Here's the linK: http://michigancomputes.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/a-few-thoughts-on-being-an-ally/ :)

Anonymous said...

i got one one online teaching courses from Educator for computer science