Why do you think that is?
It can be a resource issue–you need computers to take computer science, and you need qualified teachers. I’ve already mentioned the challenge of recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. I also believe that professional development of teachers should focus on equity, and on what we can do as instructors to encourage a diverse set of students in our courses, and to see the excellence in those students.
The only background needed to take computer science is algebra. There’s no reason why the percentages couldn’t be much better. Another question to ask is: are people equally aware of the opportunities and pathways that a computing career can provide? One of the things the committee is looking into is how we can recruit and retain African American students who have a high interest in the field but are not highly represented.
I think this is an important social justice problem. At this point, the people that are leading the technology industry, not only are they missing all the insight they could be getting from a diverse workforce and more diverse leaders, but there are opportunities to set society’s agenda that African Americans are not engaging in as much as we could be. With a high quality computer science degree, you’re likely to have a good career, and since computing is now so ubiquitous, you don’t need to work as a software engineer. You can take a computing background and go do a lot of things.
In what other areas?
In the future it will hurt you not to have a computer science degree—the same way that being able to write well is essential in every industry. We won’t be able to say, ‘I can’t do that part of it. I can’t even understand that part of it.’ It will be that essential, depending, obviously, on your discipline. But it’s interesting to hear other scientists now saying that they wish they’d taken computer science. It’s becoming the fourth pillar of science. There’s so much that’s computational now–and it particularly concerns me that this could exacerbate inequality. That’s why I’m very excited about being appointed chair. We’re not making nearly as much progress as we should.
Sometimes statistics can make things seem better or worse than they really are. For example, 12%—13% of African Americans are earning B.S. degrees in computer science. But then when you look at Ph.D.-granting institutions, that number plummets; then look at schools that send people to places like Google and Facebook, and the number goes even lower.
African Americans are visible in only certain sections of the computing industry–those areas then become less valued or have less impact on decision-making. A lot of this is because of a lack of access to high quality computer education. We need internships, mentorships, pathways, [and] role models that inspire African American students and positive engagement. They also need to know that failure is ok. You must deal with failure when dealing with computers.
What kind of effect on policy do you expect the ACM Education Policy Committee to have? There is no national education policy.
Right, but we can exert influence by exploring the state of computer science education in each state. We can examine the backgrounds of people in the computer science industry so we’ll know what we need to replicate. In the U.S., education is a local thing, but there’s lots of ‘viral spread’ in education reform. If you have success in places like New York, Chicago, L.A., that will impact schools in North Carolina. Our role is to inform the community. We can say, here’s what’s happening, here are some exemplars; here’s the way we think people can move forward.
What do you think of hackathons?
I think hackathons done well are a good idea. There is a danger for some hackathons to reinforce some of the less good attributes of computing culture, such as being overly competitive, and some are less diverse than computing classes, so it’s important that they engage underrepresented students. But they are great in the sense that within 24 to 36 hours something pretty cool can be developed.
For more information about Computer Science Education Week, go to https://csedweek.org/.