Cutting-edge curriculum: How to fight underrepresentation in computer science

(BPT) - These days, computer science is important. Really important. Nearly every part of our lives is influenced by computers. So, why is diversity in this field still so hard to find?

The problem starts early. According to the College Board, in spite of comprising 15% of the American high school student body, Black students made up only 3.5% of those who took the advanced placement computer science A (AP CSA) test in 2020. That same year, only 14% of the 70,000 students who took the test were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and only 25% identified as female.

Studies have found that when any student starts engaging in computer science early, as a K-12 student, they’re significantly more likely to major in the field or seek a career in it. To help get more young people excited and participating, experts have identified the need for an equity-minded computer science curriculum.

A first-of-its-kind approach

Amazon’s signature computer science education program, Amazon Future Engineer, is trying to help close the diversity gap in tech and is providing a $15 million, 3-year grant to Code.org to develop a first-of-its-kind Java programming curriculum. Code.org and Amazon Future Engineer are focused on expanding access to computer science and increasing student participation, particularly among underrepresented groups. Each year, Amazon Future Engineer aims to inspire millions of students globally from underserved communities to explore computer science through elementary school curriculum, middle and high school courses, project-based learning and teacher professional development.

“Our Amazon Future Engineer program was designed to offer all young people the chance to build their best future,” said Victor Reinoso, global director, Amazon Future Engineer. “With this donation to Code.org, we hope that all students – from a wide variety of backgrounds – will identify themselves in the curriculum and be inspired and prepared to pursue computer science in high school through career.”

What does it mean to be an equity-minded curriculum?

Clear goals are the most important factor to determine any new curriculum’s effectiveness and staying power. To that end, this new equity-minded curriculum for AP CSA is being developed with four key goals in mind:

  • Considering culture: Every culture has its own unique references and learning styles. An equity-minded curriculum is informed by these elements at all levels including the vocabulary and images used, as well as the sequence of concepts being taught. This approach is at the core of Culturally Responsive Teaching, the pedagogy informing Code.org’s strategy in crafting the new curriculum.
  • Acknowledging diverse experiences and interests: ‘Real-world problems’ need to apply to the actual ‘real world’ of the students doing the work. Since every student is different, projects should be designed to be open-ended. Instead of making assumptions about a student’s background, assignments should empower them to demonstrate their mastery of the concepts through the lens of their particular passions and experiences.
  • Promoting diverse representation: A key concept for this new curriculum is “Software Engineering for All.” This means promoting a narrative that makes it easy for all students to envision themselves as software engineers. Visual representation is particularly essential, such as including a diverse range of tech professionals presenting in video content.
  • Developing career skills: Real-world career skills for computer science means proficiency in tracing code segments and documenting code. However, Code.org’s new curriculum will also focus on collaborative skills that go beyond the College Board's CSA framework. One example is teaching students to do code reviews, a part of quality assurance that’s essential to many jobs in the tech industry.

Several states have already pledged to support the curriculum and teachers will be able to sign up for professional workshops covering the new material in 2022. The curriculum will be available to schools starting in the 2022-23 school year. Interested teachers and administrators can find more information at code.org/educate/csa. In the meantime, Code.org and the Amazon Future Engineer program are continuing to develop initiatives aimed at changing the face of computer science.

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