Unpacking ‘CS for All’: Tools for Creating an Inclusive Computer Science Classroom

Partnerships Manager, Cognitive ToyBox

It is incredibly important to discuss the lack of access to computer science education. It is also essential to talk about (and celebrate!) all of the men, women, and underrepresented minorities who have succeeded in CS—in ways big and small. Stories of triumph can inspire students and teachers, who sometimes feel like outsiders in CS, to keep going (Rework, 2016).

Successful people often have had significant bumps along the way. Leigh Ann DeLyser, director of education and research at Computer Science for All NYC Students and former CS teacher is quick to point this out. DeLyser’s inspiring story, which includes earning a Ph.D in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University, has had plenty of tough moments.

“Every single day I was there at the university,” she says, “I thought that they would figure me out and kick me out . . . I had imposter syndrome. I spent hours on the floor of friends’ dorm rooms saying, ‘Why doesn’t it like me?’ and struggling with our code just as much as everyone else does.”

When students hear DeLyser’s story, they may not feel as alone when they face challenges with their own CS courses.

As an educator, how do you help many different kinds of students experience success with computer science? We interviewed DeLyser a few months ago, and we’ve compiled a bunch of her tips, along with ideas from other education resources, on how you can start to make your school or CS classroom more inclusive to all students—today.

Making Computer Science Instruction Equitable

1. Thoughtful Recruiting

Recruit all different kinds of students into CS classes. Unfortunately, cultural stereotypes often play too large a role in the recruiting process. DeLyser explains that we often assume that the kid wearing the Star Wars shirt is the most likely to thrive in a computer science classroom. But there are lots of other kids who don’t fit that stereotype who are just as interested in CS. DeLyser says, “No matter what a student is interested in, tech might be something that they can find a home in.”

Art Lopez, a computer science teacher in San Diego, agrees that active, inclusive recruiting is essential. He also believes that schools that have trained their existing teaching staff to teach computer science have an upper hand when it comes to recruiting: “One advantage to using existing personnel is that these teachers already know the community and can work to recruit students who may not view themselves as computer scientists” (Mindshift, 2016).

In addition to teachers, there’s another group that knows the school community well: the students. They can help with recruiting in lots of ways. Ask them to share their CS experience on social media, put up posters around the school, and chat with their friends.

So once you have a classroom full of CS students with different backgrounds, how do you make sure that they all want to stay in that classroom?

2. Classroom Practices

Although DeLyser encourages all students to make their voices heard in CS classes, she emphasizes that, “Our teachers . . . shouldn’t be relying on students to speak up.”

She recommends actively engaging with students individually. CSTeachingTips.org provides a first step for giving students personal attention—learning their names. As simple as it sounds, this can provide the foundation for meaningful teacher-student relationships that keep all students coming to class.

3. Walk a Path

Another inclusive engagement tool that DeLyser loved as a CS teacher is walking a path in the classroom. She explains: “Rather than responding to raised hands while students are working on projects, choose a path . . . I would literally, during class, do laps of the room . . . Every student had to acknowledge that they were not stuck, that they didn’t need my help, that it was okay that I moved along to the next person.”

4. Count Hands

DeLyser also had success with a “counting hands” technique. When students would raise their hands to answer a question, she would count all the hands that went up before calling on anyone. She found that this was a great way of stalling so that all students had a chance to think through the problem and participate in the conversation.

Even with the best intentions, sometimes we’re not aware of our bias. The folks at CSTeachingTips.org have a great idea for facing that issue head on. Bring up the effects of bias in class. Then, teachers and students can have open conversations about it rather than pretending bias doesn’t exist. You can teach students about research that has been done on issues such as stereotype-threat and discuss ways that the class can maintain an inclusive environment.

5. The Role of Mentors

Inside or outside the classroom, you can change students’ lives by serving as a supportive mentor. When DeLyser was discussing her path to a successful CS education, mentorship came up immediately. “I had very supportive mentors while I was in school and then even after I got out of school who encouraged me,” she said.

As an educator, you can offer yourself as a mentor to students by encouraging them to talk to you after class or during office hours. You can bring in students who have already taken your CS course for mentoring sessions with current students.

Research backs up the importance of mentorship, especially for women and underrepresented minorities. The Atlantic reported on a study which found that women engineering students were more successful when they had women mentors. When Carnegie Mellon scholars explored why their CS program was attracting more women students than average, they found that mentorship was a significant ingredient (Rework, 2016).

6. “What’s Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander”

Good computer science teaching practice does not change based on the race or gender of your students. It’s about making your classroom culture welcoming, comfortable, and empowering for all students. DeLyser puts it simply: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

She elaborates, saying, “The best things that work for young women, also work for our young men . . . It’s not about looking at the specific categories of the people that are missing, but instead asking ourselves how can we take our instruction, how can we take our classroom practice, and make it better for everybody.”

Other researchers agree. CMU scholars argue that if you create computer science content specifically for girls, you are just reinforcing the very stereotypes you’re trying to eliminate (Rework, 2016). And researchers at the University of Washington found that “girls were almost three times more likely to be interested . . . [in CS] when the classroom was not stereotypical [in its design and decoration]” (The Conversation, 2015).

When it comes to equity in CS education, there are also systemic issues at play that can’t necessarily be solved in the classroom. But all educators can make a huge difference. Especially when you have students in your class who have never encountered CS before, you have the opportunity to shape their perception of the subject. As DeLyser says “the teacher’s role is key in computer science.”

Let us know if you have any other tools or ideas for helping make the CS classroom a more inclusive place. And share your own or your students’ CS success stories!

For additional reading on how to bring inclusive teaching practices to your classroom, check out these resources:

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

Images courtesy of Nikki Navta. 

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  2. Replace the word “stereotypes” with “interests” in this article and the thesis falls apart. What’s good for the goose may be good or bad for the gander, depending on the student’s interests and motivations. If there is a subset of students who are motivated by video games, why not leverage this interest while introducing fundamental CS skills? Similarly, if there is another subset of students who detest video games but instead want to build applications that help their community, why not leverage this interest? We should celebrate our differences and not label them with the dirty word “stereotypes”.

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