A global conference to address equity in computing

By Yolanda Payne. Posted

Yolanda Payne, one of the facilitators of the Constellations Virtual Computer Science Professional Development Summit, talks about equity in computing education

As a former classroom teacher with 21 years of experience, I know that teachers are tasked with hundreds of decisions daily. As a decision maker with the power to change lives, it is essential to reflect personally upon why equity in education should be a part of your classroom. Giving students an opportunity to experience computer science is a personal mission for me.

After growing up in rural Mississippi and then teaching in disadvantaged schools, I know that having access to traditional computing devices is a luxury that is out of reach in many homes. Hard-working parents and families work to provide life’s basics, and computing devices may not be a priority. Having grown up in such a household, with family members who made sure that I had all that I needed and some of what I wanted, I realise, in hindsight, what a keen investment my mom and dad made when they purchased a Tandy computer from Radio Shack on a payment plan. That one purchase helped launch me on my life’s professional trajectory. To this day, I recognise what a randomly orchestrated divine intervention that was for me. 

I understand how easily an unexpected emergency situation, an unanticipated hike in a utility bill or a sick day off work, could have derailed the purchase of the machine that has helped me realise my potential. I am also viscerally aware of how this is still a reality in the households of many of the students I work with, and I don’t think that it should be left up to chance whether they are afforded experiences with the technology that is embedded in the society around them.

As a ten year old, my life was forever changed when my parents gave me access to a computing device that did not have the computing capacity of my current cell phone, but held the power to propel me from poverty into the middle class.

Some 34 years later, there are thousands, if not millions of students still in similar situations, with minds waiting to be unlocked to the power that they have when meaningfully connected to computing resources. It is up to the decision makers to realise that equity in the computing field may yield as yet untold advances for all of us if we give students the tools needed for success.

Everyone understands that people need to understand subjects like English and Maths to succeed. As technology has become more and more prevalent in our everyday lives, it’s imperative that educators teach the next generation how to create and handle technology responsibly, so that they not only succeed later in life, but thrive.  

We built it, but would the people come? 

The Constellations Virtual Computer Science Professional Development Summit was created in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Education, Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), and Computer Science for Georgia (CS4GA). It was originally intended to be held in-person on Georgia Tech’s campus during the summer of 2020 for teachers across Georgia and the surrounding states. 

With the coronavirus pandemic making in-person events unsafe, the organising team quickly pivoted to creating an online experience. While the transition was extremely challenging, we felt it was important to accomplish our goal of helping teachers of all experience levels acquire skills and information that would increase their content knowledge.

A call was sent out to potential speakers to create sessions that would be engaging and informative for educators at all experience levels. We also wanted a diverse cohort of voices—something that is often overlooked in the field of computer science. Within a couple of weeks, we received over 45 proposals from teachers across the country that were geared towards the elementary, middle school, and high school tracks. Topics ranged from creating culturally-relevant pedagogy to why artificial intelligence can and should be taught at the elementary school age.

Once we had our speaker line-up, we were feeling confident, but still unsure of how many attendees we would have. With it being the first year of the summit, we set a goal of 250 participants, and were blown away when more than 730 people from around the world attended. The majority of these attendees would not have been able to participate in the in-person event because of travel and budget constraints, or any number of other issues. Educators from Oregon to Italy to Scotland to New York attended and were able to add diverse and unique perspectives to the conference conversations. 

As a centre focused not only on computing education, but also on equity issues in STEM, we wanted our sessions to reflect these dual priorities. As proposals came in, panellists were eager to share stories of their work in the field, pitfalls they’ve encountered, and how to rise above discrimination or systemic issues and make real change. Content session leaders provided interactive and engaging sessions that introduced educators to new products or ways of approaching content in the classroom. 

Keynote speakers LaShawne Myles and David Guy related their experiences as first-year Computer Science teachers in the Atlanta public school system.

What does equity have to do with computing? 

In a word: everything. As a fellow at the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech (Constellations) this question is central to the mission of the work I engage in on a daily basis. Our team is partially embedded with teachers in the Atlanta Public School district, where we work to bring advanced computing courses to students in disadvantaged communities. Of our students, 75 per cent are on a free or reduced lunch plan and 72 per cent are students of colour.

It’s no secret that the field of computer science is lacking in diversity. When we look at the number of diverse people entering the STEM workforce and contrast them to the number of students in school education who lack access to a computer science course, the pipeline problem is clear. While there is certainly a lack of diverse students in the pipeline, it is Constellations’ mission to ensure that all students — especially students of colour, women, and others disadvantaged in school and post-secondary institutions — have access to quality computer science education, a fundamental life skill in the twenty-first century.

The pipeline is not dry because women, students of colour, or economically disadvantaged students don’t enjoy computer science or aren’t good at it; it’s dry because they haven’t even had the opportunity to try or experience the field.

It’s important to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations about what we are doing to give every student the chance to experience computer science and to potentially change the trajectory of their life. The Constellations Summit actively engages in these conversations and we believe it’s important to continue doing so, and for other conferences to encourage similar conversations in the future. 

Constellations summit resources

The archived sessions from the Constellations summit are available here.

More information about the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing can be found at constellations.gatech.edu. Opportunities for collaboration and resources on current initiatives are also available.



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