A middle-aged female teacher with long straight black hair tied back watches as a middle-school aged girl with long straight black hair works on a black laptop at a school table.

Why It's Important to Break Computer Science Stereotypes

Ruth Mesfun (Charlotte ’12) shares why it’s imperative to shut down certain assumptions about computer science before we can get students interested in pursuing tech careers.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

In our latest piece celebrating Computer Science Education Week, Teach For America alum Ruth Mesfun (Charlotte ’12) shares why it’s imperative to shut down certain assumptions about computer science before we can get students interested in pursuing tech careers.

 

Genius, excellent in math and science, rich, and white. These were the words my girls used to describe a software engineer. Hurt is how I felt at the moment. Not by them, but by how our society ingrained that stereotype in them.

I teach computer science at Excellence Girls Middle Academy, an Uncommon School in Brooklyn. I recently worked with my principal to develop a sixth grade computer science course for our students, and this school year, we are piloting and creating a curriculum for the course. I am not only excited to teach my students computational skills, but also for them to take what they learn and share their new “superpower” with others.

USA Today reports that only 3 to 7 percent of people working in the tech field identify as people of color. After discovering these stats, it’s easy to see why my students used the words above to depict a typical engineer.

I realized I had an obligation to help alter their perspective of computer science and tech fields. I wanted them to see faces of all colors and backgrounds in tech fields, so I started interviewing and posting black and brown faces with tech backgrounds on my blog, POCIT: People of Color in Tech.

 

A collage of six images of smiling black youth and adults, behind text reading POCIT

 

I had my students visit the blog and write about how the people being interviewed related to their lives. Responses like, “She loves to dance like me” or “She is from Nigeria!” indicated a change in their train of thought. They were arming themselves with the idea that there were, in fact, people like them making advancements in computer science.

Today, my students are creating their own mobile app through MIT App Inventor and are building their first startup as a part of an assignment. However, this is just the beginning for my students—and hopefully, for other classrooms across the country. For example, if you’re an educator, parent, or someone who wants to help open the doors of innovation and tech to students, there are many resources and activities available, like teaching young people how to code through websites like Code.org and CS First.

This early exposure to computer science—and people in the field who look like them—allows students to use their curiosity and fearlessness at a young age, while setting them on a trajectory to pursue studies and career opportunities in science and math. They need to believe that being black or brown in this industry isn’t impossible, much less improbable.

Organizations and educators are working in collaboration to help increase computer science education in high-need schools. Through its participation in the national 100Kin10 STEM education effort, AT&T will contribute $250,000 toward recruiting additional CS teachers in the Bay Area, Kansas City, New York, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. The funds will also support the work of these teachers to expand and strengthen CS education in their local communities.

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