Unpacking “CS for All”: Tools for Creating an Inclusive CS Classroom

By Lily Taylor, Community Advocate

While it is incredibly important to discuss the lack of access to computer science (CS) 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 feel like outsiders in CS, to keep going (Rework, 2016).

And success stories should reveal the bumps along the way, Leigh Ann DeLyser, Director of Education and Research at CSNYC and former CS teacher, points out. Leigh Ann’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 going, ‘Why doesn’t it like me?’ and struggling with our code just as much as everyone else does.” If students hear Leigh Ann’s story, they might not feel as alone or inadequate when they face their own challenges with CS courses.

As an educator, how do you help all kinds of students live out their own CS success stories? For one, you can share anecdotes like the ones above at the top of class each day! But there’s more to an equitable classroom than that. We interviewed Leigh Ann 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 CS More Equitable

Thoughtful Recruiting

One of the first steps to making computer science more equitable is to recruit all different kinds of students into CS classes. Unfortunately, cultural stereotypes often play too large a role in the recruiting process. Leigh Ann 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 likely are just as interested in CS. Leigh Ann 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.

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?

Classroom Practices

Although Leigh Ann 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.” Instead, she recommends actively engaging with students on an individual basis. 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 can keep all students coming to class.

Another inclusive engagement tool that Leigh Ann 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.” Leigh Ann 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, though, 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, so that teachers and students can have open conversations about it, rather than pretending bias doesn’t exist. In this dialogue, you can teach students about research that has been done on issues such as stereotype-threat and then discuss ways that everyone in the class can maintain an inclusive environment.

The Role of Mentors

Inside or outside the classroom, you can change students’ lives by serving as a supportive mentor. When Leigh Ann was discussing her path to a successful CS education, mentorship came up immediately. “What really got me is I had very supportive mentors while I was in school and then even after I got out of school who encouraged me.” As an educator, you can offer yourself up as a mentor to students by encouraging them to come talk to you after class or during office hours. You could also bring in older 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. And 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).

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

Good CS 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. Leigh Ann 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 CS 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 Leigh Ann DeLyser says “the teacher’s role is key in computer science.”

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

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Ready to level up your CS teaching? Check out the Computer Science & Game Design course, co-created by the CSTA and Zulama! You’ll learn game design and programming skills, earning a Computer Science & Game Design Certificate.

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

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This post is part of a blog series in support of our new professional development opportunity, the Computer Science and Game Design Certificate, co-developed with the Computer Science Teachers Association. For more on the intersection of computer science and professional development, read the previous posts in the series:

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