High school computer science outreach sells the field short

Ryan Young

According to a study conducted by Google and Gallup, black and Hispanic students are less likely than white students to have access to computer science classes in elementary and high school. Additionally, female students are less aware of opportunities to learn computer science within their schools, communities, and on the Internet.

At UT, our computer science department is addressing these challenges by providing opportunities for underrepresented groups to get hands-on experiences within the field. Through community outreach activities, UTCS teaches women and minority students basic computer programming. These are fantastic initiatives, but they don’t go far enough to show these students what being a computer science student is all about.

Picture a stereotypical computer science major — camping in the lab overnight, hunching over a keyboard and staring at walls of text. It’s true that we write computer code, but like all university students, we’re also well-rounded, drawing upon skills and knowledge from other fields of study.

We use mathematics to reason about and verify the correctness of our programs. We use communication skills to share research and expertise. We also make use of subjects like sociology and anthropology to understand the relationship between computer science and society, a task that is increasingly crucial in this hyper-connected age.

But when we reach out to high school students to give them their first and possibly only taste of computer science, we give them the false impression that our field is all about programming. For example, UT’s promotional video about First Bytes, a summer camp UTCS holds for female Texas high school students, focuses mostly on disassembling computers and writing code.

I'm part of the problem, too. Last December, I volunteered to lead a session of Hour of Code, a global movement to teach computer science to high school students through an hour of hands-on instruction. I wanted to explain some of the mathematical theory and creative problem-solving behind computer science to my class, but I didn’t know how — so I stuck with the suggested lesson plans, which all revolved around classic programming exercises.

Our computer science outreach should show that the stereotypes are wrong. First, get rid of the notion that computer scientists write code all day. Programming is a minor component in many UTCS classes, and a few have no programming assignments at all. In fact, during the ‘80s, Edsger Dijkstra taught the introductory course without using a real programming language.

Second, make it clear that being a computer science major is an educational experience, not a training regime. Going to a university exposes you to a variety of perspectives and interests, both inside and outside of your field. Unlike the speakers in First Bytes, who suggest that students join clubs “according to your major,” my brightest UTCS colleagues benefit from activities that have nothing to do with computers, like making music, participating in theater and writing for the Daily Texan.

It's no secret that computer science has a diversity problem — the workforces of many Silicon Valley tech companies are overwhelmingly white and male, and in 2014 only 18 percent of computer science majors were women. If the act of “coding” doesn’t appeal to minority groups, maybe experiencing the rest of a computer science education will.

Ryan Young is a computer science senior from Bakersfield, California. He is a senior columnist.