Georgia Tech’s College of Computing has launched the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing with the goal of democratizing computer science education. The mission of the new center is to ensure that all students—especially students of color, women, and others underserved in K-12 and post-secondary institutions—have access to quality computer science education, a fundamental life skill in the 21st century.
Constellations is dedicated to challenging and improving the national computer science (CS) educational ecosystem through the provision of curricular content, educational policy assessment, and development of strategic institutional partnerships. According to Senior Director Kamau Bobb, democratizing computing requires a “real reckoning with the race and class divisions of contemporary American life.”
Building Equitable Infrastructure
The central challenge facing the United States in computing education is that there simply are not enough K-12 teachers or university faculty at any level to meet the demand of students or the needs of industry. In Georgia, there are approximately 519,000 high school students. In the 2016-17 school year less than 10 percent, only 43,000 students, enrolled in CS courses of any kind. Of the approximately 600 teachers instructing those students, only 33 of them were certified by the state professional standards commission.
However, like any limited and valuable commodity in American life, access is strongly correlated with race, class, and privilege. Black students, for example, comprise 13 percent of all students taking CS courses, even though they represent 37 percent of all public high school students in the state. This pattern is replicated in many states across the country.
“We’re trying to build an equitable infrastructure for CS education within a national educational system that is tragically inequitable. We see this as an issue of educational justice,” said Bobb, who comes to Georgia Tech from the National Science Foundation (NSF), where he served as a program officer in NSF’s Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering.
“As computing emerges from under the STEM umbrella as a national priority and a pathway to power and social mobility in America, there is a tremendous amount of collaboration, development, and advocacy to do. Georgia Tech is putting the full weight of its research capacity and programmatic innovation into this effort.”
Computing Skills Critical to Everyone
Bobb is joined at Constellations by Lien Diaz, who serves as director of educational innovation and leadership. Diaz previously was with The College Board as director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. In a partnership with the NSF, she led the development of the new Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles course that launched in the fall of 2016.
“For decades now, computing fields have lacked female representation and racial diversity in the workforce,” Diaz said. “When I was at AP, the goals behind developing CS Principles are quite similar to what we’re trying to do at Constellations: We want to show how relevant computing is, no matter where you live, or what your gender or the color of your skin is. We want to dispel the myth that computing is only for a certain population. It’s for everyone, and computing skills will be too critical to everyone in our future society for us to simply accept the current disparities in access to computing education.”
Time of Reckoning for Industry
Constellations comes at a critical time, as the technology industry is being forced to reckon with calls for equity as never before. Like Diaz, Bobb brings critical experience in addressing these very issues. In his role at NSF, he helped construct a national research agenda intended to accomplish many of Constellations major goals, which include:
- Intentionally addressing issues of race and class that directly affect student achievement in computing;
- Moving beyond traditional brick and mortar constraints of educational spaces;
- Addressing the limitations of the national teacher corps through innovative human-technical solutions and the coordination of formal and informal learning.
- With initial funding both from the Institute and private philanthropy, Constellations is taking a comprehensive approach. Constellations sits in the College of Computing but will work with multiple units across the Institute with a shared goal of addressing the many layers of equity in computing.
“The lack of diversity in computing is well-documented and represents a real threat to the nation’s political, economic, and cultural standing in the world,” said Charles Isbell, executive associate dean in the College of Computing.
“Many university faculty members have devoted their research energy to understanding the most effective methods for computing education and increasing access for all students. The College’s ongoing work to offer Georgia Tech CS courses and support to Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and other districts across the state has deepened our grass-roots understanding of the barriers to equity.”
That ongoing work with APS is just one of the reasons why Georgia Tech provides the perfect home for Constellations. College of Computing faculty members Betsy DiSalvo, Barb Ericson, and Mark Guzdial are nationally recognized leaders in the study and design of effective CS educational programs and the systemic barriers to equity in CS education. The College itself, through its Office of Outreach, Enrollment, and Community and the work of Assistant Dean Cedric Stallworth, has a long history of computing outreach and teacher-training programs.
“The Constellations Center aims to highlight Atlanta’s diverse communities, promote the concealed talent that exists to contribute to a growing technology-driven workforce, and diminish racial and gender divides in American social and tech spaces,” Bobb said. “Computing is not just a matter of education, it is an element of a fair and just democracy.”