Recent Reading

Written by: Cait Pickens

Primary Source: Computing Education

Still working out the balance of having a life, a job at Google, and being a blogger. In the interim, here are the things I’ve been reading and key takeaways / thoughts / questions.

Article: The Joy of Teaching CS in the Age of Facebook – ”When people see companies like Google and Facebook being founded by relatively young people, they feel empowered and think: I can do that.” The article is an interview with Stanford professor (and ex-Googler) Mehran Sahami.

Thoughts and questions:

Students in today’s CS classes are more aware of the uses of computers in the real world. But are they more aware of the uses of programming and code? The ways that they could use code in day-to-day jobs (that are software engineering jobs)?

What factors hold students back from studying CS? Specifically, what valid and reliable data do we have to support our claims? Lots of people cite the lack of CS education opportunities in K-12 (and I’m inclined to agree), but has anyone actually demonstrated it in any sort of study?

I’ve seen a lot of people say that if we increase the educational opportunities for CS all around, then we will start to close the gender, racial and socioeconomic gaps that we see in CS. I (mostly) agree. But I also think we need to consider how we deliver content. We see gaps based on gender and race in other fields (just take a look at ACT scores, for example, where English and math classes are considered commonplace for students). So, if we just democratize CS education in the same exact fashion as we have other subjects, I think we will reinforce existing gender, racial, and socioeconomic gaps as a result of the system. We have the chance to revolutionize CS education, to define education to be anything we want it to be. Why stop at just making CS ed meet the status quo? I’m thinking that we should take a long, hard look at biases in the field (like Harvey Mudd did) and respond appropriately.

Should everyone take computer science? Probably not – at least not in the sense of CS 101 in most universities today. What should everyone know how to do with respect to CS? Know the following: what a computer does and is capable of, the basics of how it operates, how to write or read a bit of code to solve a small problem relevant to their life, how to learn more if they ever want or need to, and when to ask for help or seek outside guidance.

Article: Philip Guo writes about his NPR interview on silent technical privilege.


Guo expresses discomfort at the interviewer’s use of the phrase “racial profiling.” While I understand the discomfort, I also think it is important to call things what they are. In tech, we have definitely have a culture of implicit stereotype or unconscious bias. I experience it every day, in small ways. When a man at work calls me a “girl” rather than a “woman.” When people assume that I am heterosexual and ask if I have a boyfriend. Guo talks about it in his article and interview when he indicates that he was given tacit approval by his peers in tech.

But when you look at these biases head-on, you see that they actually are sexism, heterosexism, racism. They are small instances of discrimination that are founded on privilege and oppression. Even though we often do not intend them to be hurtful or discriminatory, we cannot deny that they are such.

The interviewer asks Guo about his feelings of guilt around his privilege, almost making it sound as thought the privilege is not his fault (but rather that of a flawed system), and so he should not be concerned about it. I think such a stance is a naive understanding of privilege. If we all assume that our privilege is not something we can work to change, then how will we ever change the system? Incremental changes in each person can accumulate to change the system. I like Guo’s plans for how to engage with minority students he encounters as a professor… And I think we should do some research about the optimal ways to attract and retain minorities in tech. What actually makes a difference – role models, mentorship, a community or working group of similar individuals, etc?

Article: They Can’t Find Us: The Search for Informal CS Education by Betsy DiSalvo, et al, transcribed from Betsy’s talk at SIGCSE 2014 here. An article that looks at terms families commonly use to find online resources to help kids learn about CS. Betsy shows that we accidentally hide our top CS education resources from the under-educated and under-privileged simply by assuming that searchers are well-educated and privileged. In this way, open education resources can actually increase the socioeconomic gap in CS


Yes. Again, like I was saying before in response to the first article – we have the chance to change the game. Right now, finding appropriate resources for kids to learn to program requires a background in CS or IT (or at least connections to someone with that background). Open ed resources are not as accessible to under-resourced families as we want to think they are.

The talk also highlights how silo-ed the ed community is in CS. Since we aren’t (yet) properly established, we are all sort of running our own shows. The K-12 folk don’t talk to the university folk, who don’t talk to the post-graduate folk. The assessment designers don’t talk to the curriculum designers who don’t talk to the people who study content delivery. We need to connect.

Also, thanks to and shoutout for Nick Falkner for blogging the talks at SIGCSE. :)

Lastly, a highlight of some twitter drama that I encountered when tweeting with Karen Brennan in response to remarks that Hadi Partovi (of made during a speech at SIGCSE.


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Cait Pickens
Cait Sydney Pickens is a graduate student at Michigan State University and a Noogler. Her research is in computer science education, and is advised by Bill Punch. In her (free?) time she does a lot of work with an organization called Software Carpentry that teaches computing tools and skills to scientists.
Cait Pickens

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