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Google: Minority students need more tech and more role models – including on TV

Tue 18 Oct 2016

New research commissioned by Google has determined a significant gap between the enthusiasm and opportunities available to potential computing science students who are female, black or Hispanic, and concludes in part that the problem lies in a lack of ‘ambient’ technology and exposure to tech-enabled role models. In the latter regard, the report notes the potential influence on teenagers of seeing characters pursuing computer science in TV shows or movies.

The report, Racial and gender gaps in computer science learning, examines demographic inequalities between black and Hispanic students’ experience of induction into K-12 computer science (CS) education, finding that despite being 1.5-1.7x more interested in pursuing computer science, these sectors have significantly less access to such courses in school and less general access to computers.

Becoming interested in a subject by osmosis is addressed in the preface to the report, written by Valerie Taylor, Regents Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, who recalls her high school environment as being free of cell phones and personal computers, and who found her narrow window of opportunity into CS via one class, which enabled a brief weekly slot on a mainframe computer owned by a local hospital:

‘Once a week, we were able to run our programs on this computer. I excelled in my first programming course on Fortran. As a result, my teachers recognized my success and encouraged me to major in engineering in college. In addition, my parents (my mother was a kindergarten school teacher and my father was an engineer), also strongly encouraged (close to required) that I major in an engineering field in college. Without this encouragement and critical exposure, I would not have thought about engineering or computer science and would have missed out on such an exciting and creative career.’

With fewer technological role-models around the students in question, the report notes the potential of the depiction of CS in TV and movies to fill in the gap. Of those questioned, only about one quarter said that they regularly saw people using computer science in TV or movies, while about a third reported seeing such examples online or through social media. But of those who noticed any CS-enabled characters or people in the media, only 16% observed any directly relatable instances, i.e. seeing people of their own age and type pursuing CS.

The study focuses on year 2 of a multiyear in-depth research project regarding the opportunities of female, black and Hispanic students in the United States, taking in 7th-12th-grade students, as well as their parents, teachers, and superintendents.

The report finds that black students are less likely than white students to even have access to K12-level CS classes or courses, with those keen to break through more dependent on after-school clubs, where available. Additionally, these categories of student are on average 20% less likely than white counterparts to use a computer in their home environments, most of the time, suggesting a decreased likelihood of these students gaining confidence in the field.

The findings also note that female students are likely to be less aware than their male counterparts of CS learning opportunities. Of some note in the findings regarding female students and CS is the observation that they are 18% less likely to evince interest in CS; but at the same time, girls are also 17% less likely to believe that they could master the subject.

Comment TV and movies have been exploiting the image of the ostracised geek genius since at least War Games in 1983, relegating the notion of CS-empowerment as the province of socially excluded, marginal characters whose excision from society has turned them back into digital worlds where they can establish their own power. The Star Trek franchise alone has contributed much to the template, hijacking the Pinocchio story for at least one major character in all its iterations, and describing a long journey from ‘technologically-enabled’ to ‘human’ – a social prescription least likely to appeal to teenage girls, or anyone not already in that situation.

While Mr. Robot features enough brilliant and attractive young hackers, they’re all also on the absolute diaspora of society, further reinforcing the message that these ‘mutant powers’ are not worth the inevitable social critical mass that such ‘unbalanced’ characters must come to. If TV in particular needs to amend its view of computer science as a pursuit, it most needs to resist continuing to depict computer aptitude as some species of digital heroin which ultimately consumes the host.


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