Panel: Demystifying computer science for Black parents of K-5 students

Dr. Sabine Thomas talked to Andrea Robertson-Nottingham and Bukola Somide about ways Black parents can help their children explore CS at an early age.

Students use Code.org activities during an Hour of Code event in 2015.

Code.org recently launched CS Journeys, a program designed for K-12 students to explore how computer science impacts their world and envision their own future possibilities. This initiative also engages parents to join this journey along with their children.

While our CS Journeys initiative is taking shape, it is important to note that certain racial groups are disproportionately represented in the field of CS and coding.

Encouraging data from Google reveals that Black parents whose children have already learned some computer science are more likely:

  • To say their children would be very likely to learn more CS in the future, compared with White or Hispanic parents (85% Black parents vs. 62% White or 65% Hispanic parents)

However, in a recent article, Dr. Tamara Pearson, Director, Center of Excellence for Minority Women in STEM at Spelman College, pointed out that when you look at [the field of ] computer science, just 8.9% of the more than 71,000 bachelor’s degrees awarded in this field in 2017 went to Black students, and only 10.1% went to Latino students, according to federal data.

This is significantly less than the percentage of Black and Latino people in the United States: 13.4% and 18.5%, respectively. Dr. Pearson’s assertion is that these disparities do not begin when a student steps onto a college campus and chooses a major. Rather, they begin in elementary, middle, and high school…and we agree!

This past year, while engaging in panel conversations with Black students, we heard that earlier exposure (middle or elementary school) could be instrumental in boosting their confidence to pursue coding and CS in High School. Another important data point is that parents’ encouragement (particularly for young women) is crucial to their scholastic success and career choices.

We reached out to Andrea Robertson-Nottingham, Code.org’s very own Facilitator Development Specialist, and Bukola Somide, founder of Computer Science Awareness in Black Communities, or CompSci ABC, to share tools and shine some light on ways in which Black parents of elementary school-age children could begin exploring the world of CS and coding at a much early age.

Andrea, can you briefly go over the definitions: Coding vs. Computer Science (CS)?

Andrea: I would define coding as the process of writing and testing a set of instructions to solve a problem or address a need. With this definition, coding could be seen as an everyday activity! It shows up as writing a recipe, choreographing a dance routine, or sharing directions to a location. In each situation, it is vital to use a shared language and provide important sequencing cues that answer questions like “How do I start? What should I do next? How do I know when I am done?”

Computer science is an academic discipline that studies computing and its related technologies to solve problems. It is rooted in programming but has broad applications and overlapping fields of study. Computer science is similar to other more familiar areas of study like mathematics. Not all students will become computer scientists, but there is foundational content all students should be exposed to as they progress through school. Just as we expect students to master skills in reading, writing, and math, we should expect students, as early as pre-K, to understand how technology works and how they can harness it to solve problems in their communities.

As a former teacher, can you share why it is important for Black parents, in particular, to gain awareness about coding and CS and share that knowledge with their children early on?

Andrea: Our children must be able to participate in and benefit from the application of technology not only as consumers and end-users, but also as creators, innovators, and hopeful entrepreneurs. Our voices are important in addressing new problems, providing alternative perspectives, and developing unique, culturally relevant solutions. Awareness of how technology can help and harm is a vital skill to be a global citizen.

It is crucial to demystify computer science, but we must also actively dispel myths about who can excel and who belongs in the field. I am amazed at how early and entrenched stereotypes are developed.

As early as first grade, our children can clearly articulate what activities and roles are open to them based on their identity markers, including gender, race or ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. We must counteract the damaging messaging prevalent in the media and entertainment with positive, affirming experiences that engage our students in CS activities. These activities need to go beyond exposure to open up pathways to future careers in CS or leverage CS knowledge. Almost all career paths are impacted by technology. With a foundational understanding of coding and CS, our students are better positioned to be innovators in whichever field they pursue.

A student uses Code.org during a 2018 Hour of Code event.

Bukola, what were the motivating factors that sparked the creation of Computer Science Awareness in Black Communities — CompSci ABC?

Bukola: While working as a software engineer in corporate America for about a decade at the time. I was often the only Black person or Black woman on the software development team, yet I confidently spoke up when needed and held my ground.

When my nonprofit, CompSci ABC, was first conceived, there were less than three percent of Black males and females working as computer science professionals. I initially intended to create a scholarship program for underrepresented young women pursuing CS in college. However, I quickly learned that Black students generally decide what major to pursue in college before 12th grade. To achieve my vision, I needed to engage the younger generation as early as elementary and middle school.

I needed to create products and services that were equally entertaining to captivate a child’s attention, and centered in education to increase the students’ awareness of CS. Our research demonstrated factors that may lead to young Black girls not pursuing CS are 1. They think it’s boring; 2. They think it’s too hard, and feel like they’re not smart enough to understand it, and 3. They don’t have access to relatable mentors, so they are not as comfortable speaking up for help. I was committed to creating services that address these three significant barriers.

How have you instilled an appreciation for CS/coding among early and younger learners?

Bukola: I created educational tools where children and parents can see their cultural reflections and identities! We have published several books and one storybook, including Somi the Computer Scientist: Princess Can Code, which contains coding exercises and a CS glossary with over 16 definitions. It was important for the books to be fitting for all children, particularly our youngest, regardless of gender and race.

Today, they are used as foundational or supplemental curriculum for elementary grade teachers and parents who struggle to find access to materials that portray diverse representations. It was equally important to normalize the foundational language of coding in all our materials. The activities presented are fun and aim to enlighten children and their parents on multiple CS concepts: algorithms, artificial intelligence, binary numbers, code, pattern recognition, bug/debugging, HTML, JavaScript, and more.

To date, our most popular tool is an interactive CS education and cyberbullying awareness doll named Somi. She embodies the essence that representation matters to inspire and boost the confidence of a child. Somi teaches 11 CS-related concepts in a fun way to engage and educate the listeners.

The “Somi the Computer Scientist” book aims to teach computer programming concepts through storytelling, illustrations, and coding exercises. (Photo via CompSci ABC)

Andrea, in addition to the tools shared by Bukola, what are some ways that parents can apply basic principles of coding and CS to their everyday activities?

Andrea: Many early learning skills naturally align with basic principles of coding and CS, such as sequencing, looping, and conditionals.

  • Introduce the CS vocabulary and concepts as early as possible. Most children’s songs follow a prescribed sequence and repeat in a loop. We frequently offer our children conditional statements such as, “if you eat your vegetables, you can have cookies for dessert.” By using the words in a familiar context, it will be easier for students to understand and use them in more abstract ways, such as coding a computer program.

It sounds like coding aligns itself with some early learning competencies, such as listening, troubleshooting, engaging, communicating, analytical and cognitive development. Bukola, what are your thoughts?

Bukola: Absolutely. When engaging with parents, I highlight that early exposure to computer science could help 1. Foster children’s logical reasoning/critical thinking so they learn how to think effectively, which may lead to making better decisions in life; 2. Nurture their problem-solving skills so they can identify the root cause of an issue, and 3. Boost their creativity, which is the bedrock of innovative minds to create solutions that solve societal problems.

How else can early exposure to CS/coding positively impact career development and pathway for our youngest Black learners?

Bukola: Normalizing and investing in these skill sets early on will have lasting and generational impacts on students’ lives and career pathways.

The research from Nobel Memorial Prize winner, Economist James Heckman illustrates that “high-quality early childhood education programs [across all races, but more particularly amongst Black children] can deliver a 13% per year return on [long term] investment. The research further demonstrates that significant gains are realized through better outcomes in education, health, social behaviors, and employment.” In fact, many technology-related careers that didn’t exist 20 years ago are changing the long-term financial legacy of families by having invested in a career-related background in CS.

A student uses Code.org during the 2015 Hour of Code event.

For parents eager to support and engage in CS and coding concepts, here are some ways they can engage in age and culturally relatable activities, as well as unplugged activities:

Culturally relatable and age-appropriate activities:

  • Computer science (CS) is all around us! IoT (Internet of Things) objects such as smartwatches, smartphones, smart refrigerators, smart thermostats, traffic lights, and more, all have CS technologies.

Unplugged activities:

  • Parents could help their kids attend STEM Career Days or support their children in crafting interview questions for known family members, friends, academics, or local CS rockstars in their cities or regions.

Additional resources and organizations focused on supporting the growing minds of Black youth while learning CS:

Panel: Andrea Robertson-Nottingham is a Code.org Facilitator Development Specialist and focuses on the development and support of her amazing team of 6–12 facilitators. Bukola Somide is a mom, software engineer, inventor, and author. She founded CompSci ABC, and Innovant Technologies LLC. Dr. Sabine Thomas is mom to a first-grade student and a Code.org Outreach Manager, supporting parent engagement and teacher recruitment around computer science education throughout the Northwest region.

A special thank you to our CSF facilitators Juan Lozano, Erin Bell, and Angie Kalthoff for inspiring this article.

—Dr. Sabine Thomas, Code.org Northwest Outreach Manager

Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.