Meet Jane Margolis

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CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.

Jane Margolis

Jane Margolis is a Senior Researcher at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and
Information Studies and the lead author of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing (MIT Press 2008) and (w/ Allan Fisher) Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (MIT Press 2002). Her work focuses on race, class, and gender issues in STEM education in the American school system.

How did you become involved in computer science education and writing around technology and computing in particular?

It was a circuitous route. It probably began with my seven years working as one of the first women telephone installers in the 70s, and loving the job that had up until that time been a male-only job. Then, jumping ahead to my time a doctoral student in Education, I was very interested in the question of gender socialization and I’ve always been interested in power, inequality, and in how we get socialized to believe we can do this, but not that. So, I come from an Education background, not a computer science background. But, after I finished my doctorate, I was in Pittsburgh and I was approached by the Provost of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) about helping the Computer Science department conduct a study about why there were so few women studying computer science. I met with the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education in the School of Computer Science, Allan Fisher, and the idea of the two of us collaborating to tackle this problem seemed like a good fit. I was excited by the challenging problem and working across disciplines. I came from the qualitative researcher world and Allan came from the quantitative computer science world, and we both thought that this would only strengthen our work. We ended up doing four years of research together examining the low recruitment and retention rate of women students, and what these women’s general experiences were within the program. We, along with our team member Faye Miller, followed 100 students (male and female) for four years. After our study concluded, Allan and I wrote Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (MIT, 2002).

One of the things I also noticed at CMU was the lack of students of color in computer science, and I was very concerned about that. My family then moved to Los Angeles and I received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to collaborate with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to examine why so few African American and Latino students and females were learning computer science at the high school level. So, my focus of interest has always been on questions of segregation, socialization, issues of identity and inequality. I just happened to land in computer science.

Your research, Stuck in the Shallow End, came out 10 years ago, and obviously put a stark spotlight on some of these long-standing inequities around computing education and technology education in general. In terms of exposure and depths of experience with computing education for African American and Latinx students, have things improved? What challenges remain?

Well, things have improved some because of the work of so many individuals and organizations, but many challenges remain. Our UCLA-based team—myself with Rachelle Estrella, Joanna Goode, Jennifer Jellison Holme, and Kim Nao — began studying which students were and were not learning computer science in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the country, in 2000. This work resulted in Stuck in the Shallow End (2008), in which we identified structural inequalities, belief systems and policies that collectively contributed to wide disparities that fell along race and socioeconomic lines. We also identified opportunities for offering more robust learning opportunities students of color and low income students. In 2008, myself, Joanna Goode, and Todd Ullah from LAUSD turned to addressing this issue. The Exploring Computer Science (ECS) program was co-authored by our team members Joanna Goode and Gail Chapman, with contributions from teachers as well. ECS is an introductory high school CS curriculum aimed at students who did not have home resources and out of school experiences to learn computer science, and were learning it for the first time. It is inquiry based and introduces students to the breath of computer science in a way that is relevant to their lives. We knew that teachers were the key element in this. In 2008, ECS started with six LAUSD teachers, and it grew over a four-year period of time to 30 teachers. An intensive equity-focused teacher professional development program was also designed to accompany the curriculum. Over the next ten years, approximately 15,000 LAUSD students enrolled in ECS, and it grew into a national program. This scaling and expansion is now under the direction of our colleagues at University of Oregon, Joanna Goode and Gail Chapman, and at this time ECS reaches approximately 40,000 students nationwide.

The development and scaling of Exploring Computer Science was supported by the National Science Broadening Participation in Computing program that was supporting other programs working for CS equity as well. Fast forward several years, and Obama in his last year in office, offered a big burst of energy and support when he launched the White House Computer Science for All initiative to stress the importance of offering CS education for all students and to encourage programs in partnership with districts all over the country, as well as with colleges and universities and nonprofit organizations. If you look at the numbers of African American and Latinx students that are participating across the country today, they have gone up based on initiatives such as these. But they have not gained in proportion to the white, Asian, and male students taking such courses. So, it’s kind of like the pie has gotten better, bigger, but the slices have remained proportionally unequal. Despite our gains, there is much more work to do.

If you just look at California, you see how this plays out. California has the largest K-12 population in the nation, and has one of the most diverse populations in the country. The state has 60% Black and Latino students, yet students of color are significantly less likely to have access to computer science courses in their schools. A study by the Kapor Center shows that Black and Latinx students are just 16% of AP CS A test-takers. But,the newly designed AP CS Principles course will hopefully increase these numbers. Unfortunately, even though enrollment has increased with AP CS Principles and there has been an increase across all demographic groups, there have still been less significant increases among Black and Native American students. But, a new movement CSforCA has been launched to make sure that equity is at the core of all initiatives to scale CS education across California. And, when we talk about equity in computer science education, we must go beyond numbers. We must look at whether the subject is made engaging and relevant for all students, is respectful and builds upon students’ strengths and the cultural assets they bring into the classroom.

With all the issues schools face today, how do you motivate the importance of CSforAll?

That is an important question because there are other subjects struggling to exist in schools, such as civic education and the arts, and the CS equity movement must be supportive of these subjects. But, here is how I explain why CS is important (and not in any order)…..

First, Computer Science is a thinking skill of our new world. CS is much more than learning programming syntax. It includes Computational Thinking which is the problem solving process—formulating the problem and their solutions—in a way that the solution can be carried out by a computer. This involves thinking skills like algorithmic thinking, decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, tinkering and debugging. These are important as computing has become so central to innovation, creativity, knowledge production. Computer science also must wrestle with all of the ethical and social responsibility issues that have emerged—such as issues of privacy, giving a platform to hate groups etc.

Then there is the jobs argument. Computer science is driving change and innovation across all occupations and knowing computer science gives anyone a jump start into a vast array of careers and jobs—from the arts, agriculture, environmental science, auto mechanics, hotel management. The list can go on and on. And, unless we address this learning gap in the schools, we will continue to see increasing underrepresentation and inequality in the workforce.

A third reason we need CSforAll is that we need all populations represented at the design tables so that it is not just white male perspectives and concerns that are getting innovated and determining how every aspect of our lives are being reshaped. You have heard about how the early voice recognition systems did not hear women’s voices because they were designed to hear the designers’ male voices, right?

And, then there is the connection between computing and civic participation. In today’s world, being an informed and empowered civic participant is enhanced by being familiar with what computer science is about. Ever read the paper today and count how many articles are dealing with computer science related topics? How is computing power harnessed to collect data on us all? How do algorithms sort out what information we get access to and which information we don’t? Is the power of computing being used to mobilize communities? Who has been given access to learn how to use these tools on behalf of their community? This must be knowledge that is widely distributed amongst all populations. Currently, it is not. Unfortunately, for too long, computer science education has been a window into how inequality and segregation are produced and reproduced.

With Unlocking the Clubhouse in 2001, you’re asking higher ed and the tech industry more widely to address these gender gaps in terms of who they’re admitting to programs and who they’re hiring at companies. As you just noted, K-12 education plays no small part here. With K-12 education, do you see particular age levels, grade bands, as problematic in terms of underrepresented populations, such as females, pulling away from computing?

In terms of pulling away from STEM, research shows that it tends to happen for girls in middle school. But, you would think it would be different for computer science because all youth, regardless of gender, are super obsessed with their technology today, right? But, there is a difference between using the technology and learning how to create and produce with it. I think the gender gap could be turned around if computer science in the schools was taught in a way that showed girls other girls and women inventing with computing, how computing is creative, fun, and tied to other fields that girls may find more meaningful and compelling. I know that is attempting to do this now with CS Discoveries. And, it is important to have the curriculum speak to the lives of all kids, all different populations.

Regarding state’s individual development of CS standards, does this make you confident that we’re going to see more robust computing in schools that could lead to wider educational reforms, in terms of technology access?

Hmmmm. I wonder what you mean by “robust computing”? Other subjects, like math and science, have had standards, but I believe that what is really key to “robust learning” is the teaching and the culture of learning that happens in the classroom and in the school. So my answer would be that school culture and teachers are really absolutely key, and that the states should be providing funding for on-going collaboration time and professional development for teachers. Standards alone are not enough. How are we going to expand computer science education if we don’t have teachers who are being supported and engaged in on-going learning? How are we going to be aware of all the equity issues, and to make sure that we are expanding computer science while paying attention to equity, unless we have teachers that are really involved in this broadening participation in computing movement? Teachers need planning time and a learning community that keeps pushing for rigour for all students. You know, each and every subject should have standards, but if we don’t have teachers who are specifically committed to equity of access and of learning experience–will these standards help challenge the inequality? Computer science now is located in an education system that has inequality pretty much baked into it in, so our big challenge must be to make sure that while we expand computer science education, that the issue of equity and addressing the deep-seated underrepresentation are confronted head on. So, we have a huge challenge now, even though computer science is spreading across the country.

What are you working on right now and how can people get more involved, if they want to, around some of these central issues?

Right now, we have a team supported by National Science Foundation to engage in three strands of this work and equity is at the core of each strand: Our colleagues at University of Oregon are focused on the research and expansion of Exploring Computer Science and building a strong equity-focused teacher professional development program. People interested in how to bring ECS to their school district should visit the ECS website. Our colleague here at UCLA, Julie Flapan, is leading our public engagement and building capacity for state policy change for CS equity. She is the director of the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools (ACCESS), which is currently the backbone of the new California statewide initiative for CSforAll for California, called CSforCA. There will be a lot of opportunities ahead for people to advocate for CS education in California and to make sure that there’s state funding to support students and teachers. You can find more information at the ACCESS web site.

And our third strand of work is research focused on understanding students’ engagement with CS learning. This is being led by my colleague Jean Ryoo with support from our two graduate students Tiera Chante Tanksley and Cynthia Estrada. Our research team is collaborating closely with administrators and educators in “research-practice partnerships” over the next three years in LAUSD, Mississippi, and a location in the Northeast. In LAUSD, we are working with the LAUSD Instructional Technology Initiative Director Sophia Mendoza and CS Coordinator Dawn Guest-Johnson, collaborating on a shared research approach and analyzing data together to ensure that the research we conduct is meaningful and relevant to our partners’ interests and needs. We are observing ECS and CSP classrooms and interviewing students about their experiences learning CS. For too long, we have not heard enough from students’ perspectives beyond surveys which really can tell only a very limited slice of the full story. In this work, we are studying students’ sense of engagement, sense of identity (do they believe they belong in the CS world), and agency (what issues are they interested in and how could they use CS to address these issues). And, we are having students share their learning by examining final projects with us, and sharing how they see CS learning linked to their larger goals or concerns. Our focus is on students who have been historically marginalized by the field–African-Americans, Latinx, low-income and female students and students who have had no to little introduction to computer science before taking these high school classes.

When you’re going into classrooms and you’re talking to teachers about computer science and what they’re doing, where do you start the conversation?

In our current research model, our research team and educators sit down together to talk about our research design, to review the observation notes and interview transcripts, and conduct the analysis and write up results as a team. We are trying to challenge more traditional models in which research is “done to” educators and students, with the goal of “doing research with” our partners. Before we begin we talk with teachers about what they would like to learn about student learning. With the data in hand, teachers and researchers together are able to reflect on where the learning could use more support and what teaching practices are the most effective for students. We are not evaluating teachers. We are collaborating with teachers for stronger learning for all students.

While teachers may understand why equity and reaching all students in education is important, they may not be aware of all the ways that students of color and females have been historically marginalized in computer science. This is a young field with a history of white “boy wonder” icons—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey. These images impact the expectations that adults and students themselves have about which students will excel and belong in computer science. This too often can translate into low expectations, or even not offering the classes in schools with high numbers of low income students of color. Further, computer science has long been taught without many of the important instructional techniques known to increase involvement of females and students of color–such as connecting computer science to contexts that are relevant for different groups of students, and having the learning be hands-on inquiry based. So, together with educators, when looking at the data, we would have these reflective conversations about student learning and equity.

What other ways have you been able to reach teachers? How have you been able to talk about these reasons for wanting to get computer science education to all, especially keeping in mind that there are multiple identifiers of diversity and multiple underrepresented groups in computer science, and multiple underrepresented identities within one person?

Well, you really are posing two questions here. One, is about what we call “intersectionality.” Yes, we very much recognize that each student has within them multiple identities and we pay attention to these multiple identities within current and historical systems of inequality. We believe that these multiple identifiers impact student learning. Do students feel the learning is relevant to their lives as a females, students of color, disabled, undocumented, gay students? What is it about their identity or life experience that makes them interested in computing, feel that they will do well or don’t belong in the field…..or in school? Further, we believe that strong teaching practice will always affirm and connect learning to students’ identity, culture, experiences, strengths.

The other aspect to your question is about how we motivate the importance of CS for All. The way I do it is talking about how the world that we’re living in, everything now–from our professional life to the way we communicate, to the way decisions are made about our democracy, the way marketing is done, the way our privacy is protected (or not)– is all affected by computer science. It’s now key across so many aspects of our lives. The real fear is that people who are not aware of these issues are going to be disenfranchised and disempowered in today’s world. Career-wise, if you want to go into film or art or auto mechanics or whatever, knowing computer science certainly gives you a jumpstart on the job market. But, I also believe that computer science is connected to civic empowerment. For instance, if you’re part of a community organization that wants to know about better health care for your community, how can you use computing to find out who’s getting sick, where are they getting treated, and how do we collect and mobilize such data? I could go on and on about different examples about empowerment that are connected to computer science, and leveraging computers to do social good. So, when I sit down with prospective teachers, this is part of my motivating argument.

In your book, Stuck in the Shallow End, you open with a chapter about the history behind the Center for Disease Control statistics showing that African-American children drown 3 times more than white children. What prompted you to link the segregation in computer science to the tragic drowning statistics?

Sometimes while studying computer science education, you must step out of your own narrow world to understand the bigger picture of inequality and segregation. When Stuck in the Shallow End team read the history behind the segregation in swimming and the tragic CDC statistics, we were struck by the similarity of forces that have contributed to segregation in computer science—unequal resources, denied access to knowledge, and biased belief systems that try to rationalize away the denied access.

In terms of swimming, the forces were very apparent. Prior to the civil rights movement, people of color were violently denied access to public swimming areas (pools, beaches), and this access is still not equal. All you have to do is get an aerial shot of the backyards of Beverly Hills and see all those turquoise squares of swimming pools. Then, if you see an aerial shot of South LA there are no pools. That is preparatory privilege right there. Right here in Los Angeles, prior to the civil rights movement, people of color were met with opposition when they tried to use public swimming pools and beaches. Similar dynamics occurred nationwide, and swimming has long become a “white sport.” You just have to look at the composition of the US Olympic Swim Teams to see the results. Then, on top of all this denied access, are biased belief systems that serve to rationalize the segregation, such as the atrocious claims that blacks have thicker bone structure making them less able to swim well. It is all outrageous.

Studying more about the history of swimming, we saw with urgency the parallels to what has been happening in computer science—-students of color and low income students denied access to learning, unequal resources, and then belief systems that try to rationalize the segregation, such as “these students are just not interested or capable,” or “some people are just born to do computer science and others are not.” You know, sometimes you have to study the bigger picture to really see how inequality works. I feel, that’s part of my mission.