Jane Margolis, one of the driving forces behind Center X’s efforts to make computer science accessible to all Los Angeles Unified School District students, particularly students of color, knows from experience that inequities exist in the technology fields.
She was among the pioneering women who broke the gender barrier for technical professions in the 1970s when she became a telephone installer for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph.
"I had a summer job after college as a telephone operator," she explained. "Then affirmative action came into effect, and the phone company had to place women in traditionally male jobs. So I volunteered to be a telephone installer. I discovered that I loved it. I learned to work with tools, and I felt a sense of mastery of something that I had never even considered, because only men were telephone installers."
Margolis climbed telephone poles for approximately 10 years until she decided to return to her original career path in education. But that experience, as well as others she would have later, "made me recognize the power of learning opportunities, stereotypes, role models and the expectations of who can do what," Margolis said. "If this was true for telephone installers, how was it true in [other fields]?"
Learning computer science in high school is a gateway to learning other disciplines. But not all students have access to it. Jane Margolis' work is changing that, especially for teenage girls and students of color, and opening up educational pathways nationwide.
At Harvard Graduate School of Education she studied gender socialization and gender, race and inequities in education. After graduating in 1992, she was asked to conduct a study at Carnegie Mellon about the lack of female students in what was one of the top computer science departments in the nation. Her findings resulted in her first book, "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing" (with Allan Fisher. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002).
"At the end of that study, I was really concerned about the low number of students of color," noted Margolis. "And so I vowed that my next study was going to look at underrepresentation, race and gender at the high school level."
Margolis describes computer science as "a gateway across all disciplines," but despite its importance, it’s a field that African Americans, Latinos and females are the least likely to enter.
Her research has led her to establish two important initiatives to advance the teaching of computer science. In 2004, she formed Center X’s Into the Loop Alliance, a partnership between UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS) and the LAUSD, with funding from the National Science Foundation.
Before her academic career, Margolis was a telephone installer after affirmative action broke the gender barrier for technical jobs.
To make computer science relevant and engaging to a diverse population of high school students, she and two colleagues, GSE&IS alumna Joanna Goode and Gail Chapman, at the time a leading member of the Computer Science Teachers Association, formed the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) program.
"Our program is all about making this knowledge accessible to all students, so we refer to it as democratization of computer science knowledge," Margolis said. The ECS program, which was implemented in six schools when it started, is now in 26 schools across Los Angeles.
"Over 2,000 kids a year in LAUSD are exploring computer science now," she said. "Most of these kids are African American and Latino. … Additionally, while the national average of female students who are participating in AP computer science is about 19 percent, the LAUSD ECS enrollment is 40 percent female."
This fall, Into the Loop and ECS received another round of funding from NSF, a total award of $3.75 million over the next five years.
And ECS has now being used nationwide as a model of how students and teachers at the high school level should be introduced to computer science and computational thinking. In Chicago public schools, for example, ECS is the foundational course in a career technical education program taught to 4,000 kids a year. The NSF has also funded several projects across the country, including one in Washington D.C.
For ECS teachers in LAUSD schools, Into the Loop is providing professional development with a focus on computational thinking, problem-solving and algorithmic thinking.
But there are still many challenges to face, Margolis said. Along with diminished budgets and resources, computer science, as vital as it is, is still considered an elective. "At this point, there are no certification pathways for computer science teachers, so they are pulled from all different fields," she said. "One of the places where budget cuts have really affected teaching is in reduced funds for coaching. The less funding you have for these types of programs and for teacher professional development, [the more] it will take its toll, especially on low-resource schools with a high number of underrepresented students."
When Margolis and her team of graduate student researchers first set out to examine why so few African American, Latina/o and female students at three schools in Los Angeles were studying computer science, they found great disparities. Their findings became the nucleus of her second book, "Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing" (with R. Estrella, J. Goode, J. Jellison, and K. Nao. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008).
Studying computer science in high school is a huge step toward getting into the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), says Margolis.
"Basically, we found there was incredible confusion about what computer science is at the high school level. … In schools with high numbers of African American and Latino students, what was called ‘computer science’ was really limited to rudimentary skills like Word Perfect and Internet searching. We saw schools that were technology-rich, but curriculum-poor. The equipment was there, but no curriculum, and no access for these students to real computer science learning."
Margolis said stereotypes and disparities in resources at home are also factors in the underrepresentation of minority and female students in computer science courses in LAUSD.
"We call it preparatory-privilege — kids who come from homes [with] multiple computers and … parents who know about computer science. These [kids] come to school with all this background knowledge, and everyone then assumes that they are the only students with a ‘natural talent’ for the field," Margolis explained.
Although these assumptions are wrong, she said, they impact the way teachers and principals think and how students think of themselves. They assume "that if you’re not doing computing, it must mean that you are not interested or able. Many kids think, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ But, the truth is that they’ve never been introduced to it in a way that engages them and demystifies the field."
Margolis says that the concept of computer science needs to be redefined as "the knowledge and the skills you need to create the technology, not just consume the technology.
"This is a field that is changing the whole world. If you know computer science, doors are more open to you everywhere," she said. "We believe that this is knowledge that should be available to all kids. Into the Loop is trying to make sure it’s available to all students, not just a select, privileged band."
A longer version of this story is available at Ampersand.