Strategies to Create a Diverse Computer Science Classroom

Our goal at Vidcode is to give all students the opportunity to study programming. In order to give all students that opportunity, we must ensure we provide access to those who are underrepresented in the computer science industry. 

Women and people of color are still largely underrepresented in the computer science industry. According to a 2015 Taulbee study, only 16% of undergraduate computer science majors were women. This statistic is staggering considering that female students outnumber male students by 3 to 2 for almost every other major. In high schools, only 20% of students who take an AP computer science exam are students of color.

Job market demand for programming and engineering skills continues to outweigh supply -- so the question remains -- why are there so few women and people of color in this innovative and profitable field? 

At Vidcode, we work with schools and programs to reach students of all backgrounds and show them how computer science is behind the things they use every day. We often have schools ask us what they can do to attract more girls to computer science classes. The following tips are gleaned from organizations such as Harvey Mudd College and our research.



Make things they care about

Throughout the initial research phase of Vidcode, we found that girls wanted the ability to make stuff with their friends and code things they were interested in, which is why Vidcode lets them use their media to code and customize Instagram and Snapchat filters. By keeping programming courses relevant and creative, we found that all students respond with excitement. 


Introductory courses should emphasize practical and creative uses for programming 

Nothing loses a student’s interest faster than when they cannot correlate what they’re learning to real-world practicality. Students lose interest quickly when they cannot connect the things they are learning to something practical in the world that they know. Making certain the curriculum is practical and creative provides reason and context to learn challenging concepts. Starting with simplified projects like Hour of Code demystifies the coding experience and demonstrates that anyone can learn programming.


Change the name of computer science courses

Harvey Mudd College changed the name of their mandatory introductory course to something that would peak the student’s interest: from “Introduction to programming in Java” to “Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python.” This took them from 10% female computer-science majors to 40%.


Offer AP Computer Science Principles 

In the U.S., the College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) computer science classes are being expanded to attract more girls and underrepresented minorities. The 2016 national launch of the College Board's AP Computer Science Principles course is seen as key to this growth, since it is designed to appeal to more diverse students.

While the existing AP Computer Science course focuses on the Java programming language, the new course is a creative exploration of real-world problems. It's designed to appeal to people who might have assumed that computers were not for them. Vidcode has an AP CSP course available to help schools run successful AP CSP programs.


Include a track for students with no coding background and encourage team building activities

 Administrators and faculty at Harvey Mudd noticed that in-class discussions were often dominated by students, often male, who had previous programming knowledge. This typically discouraged and intimidated students who had little to no experience coding. By creating curriculum tailored to true beginners, the school was able to build stronger team environments and empower all students to participate.


Don’t say “guys” 

It may seem small, but gendered language matters. Call your students “programmers” instead!


Create a mentorship program 

Students are often more inspired by their peers a year or two older than they are to industry professionals. Encourage diverse students to mentor others and take on leadership roles in the school. This gives female and minority students visible role models, which increases confidence and relieves the pressure to be “trail blazers” for their social groups.

Making even a few of these changes in the classroom and at a broader level will help close the gender and minority gap and create a healthier, more inclusive atmosphere in the computer science industry as a whole.

We hope these tips help! If you have other strategies that have been successful, please share in the comments below.