Changing the culture of computer science education, S10E4

Students engaging in STEM activities.


How can we get a more diverse group of young people interested in computer science? Focus on equity, says Jill Hubbard, instructor of computer science and co-principal investigator of a multi-university project to change how computer science is taught in high school, funded by the National Science Foundation. Over 40 schools are part of a program to make computer science more welcoming to underrepresented groups.

Season number
Season 10
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[MUSIC: “Silence for a Film,'' by Ann Annie, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a creative commons license]

ROBERTSON: That is the sound of a high school computer science classroom, pre-pandemic, something we have not heard in a while. We’ve lost so many things this year. Nothing compares to the lives we’ve lost, but the education of our young people has suffered. Inequities that existed before the pandemic were heightened when schools closed. So, I wanted to take a look at how research aimed at breaking down inequities for computer science education was impacted by the pandemic. This is the second episode on this topic because we have two research groups involved with a national program called Computer Science for All. Last episode, we heard about research at a local middle school that uses games to teach computer science concepts. This episode is focused on a program for high schools all over the state called CS for Oregon.

I’m your host, Rachel Robertson, and as last time, I’ll be looking for the silver linings in our pandemic world.

[MUSIC: “The Ether Bunny,” by Eyes Closed Audio, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution License.]

ROBERTSON: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is “Engineering Out Loud.”

ROBERTSON: That recording of the classroom came from Bend Senior High School, home of the Lava Bears. It is the largest comprehensive high school in eastern Oregon and one of the 40 schools participating in CS for Oregon. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation and is a collaboration between Portland State University, University of Oregon and Oregon State University. Oregon State’s connection is through Jill Hubbard. She is a co-principal investigator on the grant and an instructor of computer science at OSU-Cascades. Hubbard works directly with the teachers to help them learn and implement the curriculum. Before we get into the details, I wanted you to hear from her about why she was motivated to be part of the program. I talked to her over Zoom last fall, when issues of social justice in our country were weighing heavily on our minds.

HUBBARD: What I think is so important about this work and sometimes it's exciting and sometimes frankly it's draining because there's so much that could be done to help students who don't have access, who don't have privilege, gain privilege in our world. This is one element of a bigger picture going on in our society today of what is your role in your world and what is your perspective and what does that grant you access to? This is a piece of that puzzle that is important — that if we don't provide these on-ramps to knowledge, to not just knowledge but knowledge that is basic and needed to live and to work, it really creates some serious inequities even more so than we have today. So how do we, how do we as individuals in whatever our role is, whether, whether it's computer science, whether it's, you're a physician, whether you're working in a manufacturing company, no matter what you're doing, how do you take your lens and your abilities and try to make it better for other people that don't traditionally have access to maybe what you have had access to.

ROBERTSON: I love what she says because I think engineers are often characterized as focusing on the details and not seeing the big picture, but frankly that has not been my experience in all the years I have been talking to faculty about their work. To make an impact, you have to see the bigger picture and understand where you can make a difference.

In Jill’s case, she had first-hand knowledge of this need for a different kind of computer science curriculum. She started her career in industry but then switched to teaching computer science and engineering in high school. Here’s what she told me about that experience when I visited the high school.

HUBBARD: Over and over again, even though I was a woman, and I would ask these young women and just broad nontraditional people, “Please take this class.” They would often do it for me, like hang for a week and then look around the class and say, “This is not for me. Everybody in here knows more than I do. I don't feel comfortable here. I think the ship has sailed.” And they were 15 years old. And I would say, “This ship has not sailed. You are 15. Just come get on the ship for a little longer, it'll feel better.”

[MUSIC: “Bug Catching,” by Emily A. Sprague, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a creative commons license]

ROBERTSON: But Jill also realized she had to change how she was teaching — traditional methods were not going to reach everyone. That’s when she discovered the curriculum that they are using for this program, it’s called Exploring Computer Science. Based on research and designed to promote equity, it’s taught in several schools around the country. You might be wondering, as I was, how can a curriculum be more inclusive?

ROBERTSON FROM INTERVIEW: How do you make equity-driven curriculum? I mean, what, what does that mean?

HUBBARD: Love that question, “what does that mean,” because that's the question I asked so many times when I look at different curriculum. So, in terms of this curriculum in particular, so this is Exploring Computer Science, um, what it does that's different is it does as much off the computer as it does on the computer. So it's not about: We're going to teach you how to program in — pick your favorite language — Python of the week, because that's the skill. That's the: Here's the hammer and here's a nail. We're gonna teach you how to hammer over and over again with different hammers. What's the point? Instead, it's: We're going to solve some problems; we're going to ask you some questions about what you know and what you think; we're going to encourage you to write as well as read about stuff; we're going to have you talk to each other, share out your ideas, talk to each other as a class. There are some intentional lessons that really do focus on bringing other cultures into the classroom. So when we do stuff with modeling, for example, there are activities that focus on Navajo basket weaving, uh, what does it mean in that culture to geometrically, to weave different baskets? And what does that culture mean? So you're not just talking about the actual: how do you model something on a computer, and what do you type where. But it's: Where does that fit into different societies and different cultures? And also tapping into who's in the classroom and what are your cultures. 

ROBERTSON: I got to see this in action during my visit to that classroom. It feels like a lifetime ago, but my memory is that only about half the students were actually working at a computer. Don Carter is the computer science teacher at Bend High, and he told me about his experience teaching the Exploring Computer Science curriculum. 

CARTER: I've been having a great time. I've been teaching for a long time. And this is one of the first years where I've had a lot more buy-in than I usually would on projects. Kids are sticking with things, they're turning stuff in, and I think they're seeing that there's value in it. We've tried to mix the tech part with the design part, because we do have gearheads out there and they do like gadgets and so we did mix in, you know, working with some of the devices, some of the technical part of it with the philosophy and the problem solving and the algorithm design. I think the thing that's very pleasing about it that makes it accessible to all kids is that we're not just sitting there coding every day. We're looking at the impacts of technology, how it affects everyone. And so we are involving arts and crafts, we're involving design and so everybody has a little buy in to it.

ROBERTSON: As I mentioned, Jill’s part in this project has been to train the teachers. Normally that is done at OSU-Cascades over the summer and quarterly during the school year. One great part about the grant is that the teachers are paid for the time that they spend on professional development. 

CARTER: It’s nice that we were included in a grant where the resources were there for us, the training was there for us, and all I had to do was show up. That’s pretty rare in my world. 

ROBERTSON: This year, of course, the training and teaching had to happen online and so the CS for Oregon team had to quickly figure out how to do things differently. 

HUBBARD: We wanted to focus on tools that were easy to use, that were free, and that were less is more. So, we didn't want to make the technology a barrier in learning computer science, which could be a mistake that's easy to make. Look, we have all this great new ed tech, let's put five different new things in to engage people. And then you have people that are not really comfortable with technology, or they're just dealing with their own stuff in life. And that's just another barrier.

ROBERTSON: During the summer training, Jill and the team worked with the teachers on using the Google Suite of collaborative tools. But it was more than just learning how to use the apps.

HUBBARD: There's certain tools that you want to be able to kind of use to promote collaboration and teachers are using them now, like breakout rooms. How do you create a smaller group out of a larger group, but also do an intentional way where there's some type of an ask and they come back with a question and then they share the stuff they did in their breakout room with the bigger group. And you're trying to model things you would do in a classroom, in a virtual space with a tool. So they had the ability to see and practice that. And the majority of them said, I was so glad that we were able to model what it is to teach in a virtual environment before I have to do it in September.

[MUSIC: “Bug Catching,” by Emily A. Sprague, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a creative commons license]

ROBERTSON: Beyond learning the skills they needed, the professional development training offers the teachers a cohort they don’t have within their schools. I like how high school teacher Taghrid Elmeligui put it:

ELMELIGUI: Most computer science teachers are islands in their schools. So they're, we're speaking a language that basically nobody else in the school speaks. 

ROBERTSON: Taghrid has been teaching computer science at McMinnville High School for eight years. Like Jill, she also started out in industry. Also like Jill, when she saw the need for a different way of teaching, she found the Exploring Computer Science curriculum. She was already teaching it when she joined the CS for Oregon program where she participated in the professional development training. 

ELMELIGUI: And it was a game changer.The focus was not necessarily on the material that I'm going to teach, but on how do I teach it and how to meet each and every student at their level and how to make it approachable. The theme of equity and collaborative work is just weaved throughout the professional development and sent me back to the drawing board of how I can do things better. 

ROBERTSON: Taghrid has a unique perspective since she taught the curriculum both before and after the professional development training. So, I asked her if she could see a difference. 

ELMELIGUI: I don't know how to describe it, but in my mind, the best way is the goodwill of the students, in the sense that they are more willing to stick with a problem, even if it is hard, even if it is challenging. Just because I fronted with them that it is okay to make mistakes, that it is okay to not get the answer right away. When you keep telling them that more and more and more, some of the shy students who never talk, they actually start participating and they enjoy themselves. So that is the biggest win for me, not the students who are confident and they will do well, whether I'm there or not. It's the students who are not that confident and they choose to continue in the pathway and I can see their growth from freshmen all the way until they graduate.

[MUSIC “AnaCaptainslogue,” by Noir Et Blanc Vie, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a creative commons license]

ROBERTSON:  During the pandemic the teachers maintained contact with each other as they struggled to adapt the curriculum to an online environment. Taghrid said that the tools they learned over the summer helped in her advanced classes, but the introductory classes were more difficult. 

ELMELIGUI: Some of the classes that I taught in person, and they were some of the most successful classes. The kids got the most joy out of them. One of them I taught today and it completely fell down, just because of the nature of the class. So the class required the use of Legos to figure out the problem. Not everyone has Legos. We tried it with pieces of paper — did not work. After 45 minutes, I said, “Okay. So we're stopping that, that doesn't seem to be working. I am frustrated. You are frustrated. I understand that. Let's stop for today. And tomorrow I promise I'll try to figure out a better solution so everyone will be able to work on this problem.”

ROBERTSON: That gives you a little picture of what teachers have been facing over the last year. And how exhausted they must be of reinventing their classes to work online. They have been relying on their own ingenuity and the support of their peers and facilitators like Jill to get them through. 

HUBBARD: What's always cool about working with teachers, is teachers are about: How can we work together and share what we know and build on what we know? The other thing that was really interesting, because of everything that's going on in the world, the equity focus of our work really resonated. Our teachers were, like, “We need to do something here. This is crazy. Like, we can make a change.” And this work was already focused on: How do we change the system? So it was really a place for teachers to really think and share and be vulnerable. It's hard to be vulnerable when you're a grownup, when you're an adult in a work situation, but I was so impressed by how open and caring and vulnerable our teachers are that participate in this work.

[MUSIC: “Dolphin-esque,” by Godmode, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a creative commons license]

ROBERTSON: And those teachers are making a difference. Taghrid said that last year of the students that finished all of her computer science classes half of them were women and about 20% had Hispanic heritage. 

ELMELIGUI: I like the demographics in my class right now. I see a true representation of the whole high school. But it does take effort, and it does take training. And if we are serious about changing what the workforce in computer science looks like, we can’t just talk about it. We have to start as early as possible. Capturing them at this age and showing them that there is a viable way to go from ninth grade, all the way to be a software engineer or to be a computer scientist or whatever. Even if your family doesn't have anyone who works in that environment, or you haven't even been aware that there is this type of environment — that's the biggest pay for me.

ROBERTSON: We’re really lucky to have people like Taghrid, Jill and Don are working together on the issue of expanding participation in computer science. The CS for Oregon program has just finished it’s third year, and they are hoping for a renewal from the National Science Foundation to continue their work. 

This episode is hosted by me, Rachel Robertson, with help from my friends, as always. I’d like to welcome Will Havnaer who is the newest member of the podcast team. He is a student in music production at Oregon State and helping us to sound even better. Thanks, Will! And Will has an interesting story to tell us. 

HAVNAER: Hello everyone, and yes, I do have quite the interesting story. As my first assignment for this new and exciting job, I was tasked with doing some editing on this episode. When I was first listening to the audio takes, I realized that a particular voice sounded very familiar: and this is when I realized that the Jill Hubbard from this episode was the same Jill Hubbard that I had as an intro to engineering teacher in high school. Oh, what a small world it is!

ROBERTSON: Our intro music is “The Ether Bunny” by Eyes Closed Audio on SoundCloud, used with permission of a Creative Commons attribution license. The music and effects in this episode were also used with appropriate licenses.  For more episodes, visit or subscribe by searching “Engineering Out Loud” on your favorite podcast app.