Who gets to learn about computer science in school?
While a growing number of schools offer some form of computer-science class or after-school program, such offerings are still far more common in well-resourced districts than those that primarily serve underprivileged students, and more boys take them than girls.
It’s an issue that two researchers at UCLA, Jane Margolis and Jean Ryoo, have been digging into in their scholarly work—a phenomenon they call “preparatory privilege.” And they say it’s part of why the tech industry has struggled with a lack of diversity in its ranks.
The two scholars typically publish their work in journals or books for academics and policymakers—including two well-known books by Margolis called “Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing” and “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing.” But they recently got an unusual invitation: Would they be up for writing a book about inequality in computer science aimed at kids—at the very students who are getting such unequal offerings in their schools?
“And Jean immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s go for it,’” Margolis remembers. “And she said, ‘Let’s make it a graphic novel.’”
Graphic novels, of course, are most often associated with superhero stories—like Batman or The Watchmen. They’re essentially meaty comic books. And it turns out Ryoo is a fan of the genre, and she was more than ready to answer the call to become a young adult author.
The pair ended up working with an illustrator to create the resulting graphic novel, called “Power On,” and they based their story on actual students they’ve met through their research on inequity in computer science.
The graphic novel hit the shelves in April, and already some schools and school districts—including the Los Angeles School District—are buying the title for their teachers, say Margolis and Ryoo.
EdSurge sat down with Margolis and Ryoo for this week’s EdSurge Podcast, to talk about the research-based novel, which the researchers hope will inspire more students to raise questions about the offerings (or lack of them) at their own schools.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Why did you turn your research into a graphic novel?
Jean Ryoo: I think it’s a really inspirational medium for sharing ideas and emotions. Having been an English teacher and also working with educators, there are some students who feel intimidated by heavy texts, or might be reluctant to read articles or books. But when they’re given the ideas in graphic-novel form, they’re suddenly drawn in. They read a ton of them and get really engaged.
Another thing is that because there’s this visual element as well as storytelling through the words and dialogue, I feel it’s such a beautiful way to share the emotional context—the cultural context—and to also be playful with the ways that these ideas are communicated.
We’ve also been thinking about how a graphic novel like this could support a culture shift in the ways that people are thinking about how to teach computer science.
A culture shift? How would you describe the current culture and what you want to shift to?
Yeah, one major challenge right now is that there’s a tendency in the field of computer science—and generally in STEM fields—to say it is not our responsibility how people use the technology we create, we’re just the creators of it. That it’s not our responsibility to think about the ethics or the social impacts of this. It’s this false notion that computer science is an apolitical and neutral field.
What are some major points from your research that grounds this graphic novel?
Jane Margolis: One is the importance of pedagogy in computer science education—specifically about culturally relevant pedagogy. The education needs to be linked to the outside world.
There’s been this traditional notion of computer science as just being zeros and ones and objective. And what we’re trying to say is that [students] are more engaged if it’s connected to issues that they really care about and that are happening in their lives. So we wanted the novel to really make that point.
And we’re working with a team of five equity fellows from the Computer Science Teachers Association who are making resources and a teacher’s guide for the book.
In my book “Stuck in the Shallow End,” there’s a whole analysis about the inequity in computer science—the fact that fewer classes exist in high schools with high numbers of kids of color. And when they do exist in those schools, they’re mostly covering the most basic rudimentary skills, like typing. The whole system is very segregated, privileging … students in the white, wealthy areas and not the students in the under-resourced areas and students of color. And so we wanted to bring up those inequities that are caused by the system and how that affects who is learning computer science.
Hear the rest of the interview on the podcast.