Study Shows Computer Science Gap Begins Early - Higher Education
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Study Shows Computer Science Gap Begins Early

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim


Black students are less likely than White students to have computer science courses in middle or high school — 47 versus 58 percent — and female students are less likely than male students to be told that they would be good at computer science, a new study released Tuesday shows.

The study also found that Hispanic students are the least likely to use a computer at home most days of the week — 50 percent versus 58 percent and 68 percent for Blacks and Whites, respectively.

Valerie Taylor is a professor in the computer science and engineering department at Texas A&M University.

Valerie Taylor is a professor in the computer science and engineering department at Texas A&M University.

The findings — the latest installment of a multiyear Gallup study commissioned by Google — help explain why certain groups are underrepresented in the field of computer science, also known as “CS.”

“These complex and interrelated structural and social barriers have far-reaching implications for underrepresented groups in CS,” states the report, titled “Diversity Gaps in Computer Science: Exploring the Underrepresentation of Girls, Blacks and Hispanics.”

“Not only do females, Blacks and Hispanics lack some of the access and exposure to CS that their counterparts have, but the persistence of long-standing social barriers that foster narrow views of who does CS can also halt interest and advancement.”

Valerie Taylor, senior associate dean for academic affairs and Royce E. Wisenbaker Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, said the report struck a chord with her as a Black woman in the field of computer science.

Taylor said she never would have gotten into the field of computer science were it not for the fact that she attended an all-girls parochial school where, once a week, she and her fellow students were able to run programs on a mainframe computer owned by a local hospital for billing purposes.

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“I excelled in my first programming course on Fortran,” Taylor said in reference to one of the early high-level programming languages. “As a result, my teachers recognized my success and encouraged me to major in engineering in college.”

Taylor also credited her kindergarten-teacher mother and engineer father with strongly encouraging her to study engineering once she went to Purdue University.

“When I took my first programming course during my freshman year, I felt confident in my abilities because of my positive experience in high school, whereas many of my peers had no programming experience,” said Taylor, who served as head of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University for two terms.

“It all started with a programming course in high school and the simple support from teachers and parents, which this report finds is powerfully impactful for students,” Taylor said.

The new report is part of a series of reports commissioned by Google and conducted by Gallup that are meant to illuminate the underlying reasons why minorities and women are underrepresented in the field of computer science.

It touches on topics that range from parent and educator perceptions about why certain groups are underrepresented in computer science to how often students from various groups see themselves represented in the field.

For instance, the report found that about 1 in 4 students often see people “doing CS” in TV shows or movies, and that only about 1 in 6 report often seeing people like them.

“This is true of even smaller proportions of female (11 percent) and Hispanic (13 percent) students,” the report states. “If students do not see people ‘doing CS’ very often, especially people they can relate to, it is possible they will struggle to imagine themselves ever ‘doing CS.’”

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Exposure to computer science courses is critical, the report states.

“In general, when students have access to CS learning in school, they are more likely to say they are very interested in learning it — suggesting that exposure to these opportunities is key to piquing students’ interest in the first place,” the study states. “Students who report there are groups or clubs at their school where they can learn CS show greater interest in learning CS.

“Educators might want to think about ways to integrate CS into schools outside of dedicated CS classes to appeal to more students.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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