“While students experience math- and CS-aversion as an intensely personal problem, I view it as a structural one… but we can do something about it!”– Elizabeth Naameh
When it comes to equity in STEM education, from the rates of female students pursuing STEM majors to the percentage of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds on high school computer science class rosters, the stark differences we see are not in talent or ability but in opportunity and viability. For example, in a new study published in the peer-reviewed research journal, Science, NYU researchers found that high achieving female students were only as likely to choose STEM majors as men with very low high-school GPA/SATs in math and science.
High school math and computer science teacher Elizabeth Naameh has observed this inequality. As a 2020-2021 Computer Science Teachers Association Equity Fellow (CSTA), she addresses the issue head on. In Naameh's words the CSTA Equity Fellowship is a cohort of "mission minded" computer science teachers dedicated to leadership, equitable pedogogy and advocacy.
While differences in educational opportunity are often cited as an explanation for inequity in Computer Science and other STEM fields, this is only one chapter of the story. Even if opportunity knocks, a lack of viable diversity (like that cultivated through a culturally responsive and affirming school and work environment) prevents many underrepresented groups from answering the call.
“So many students experience math as this very scary place where they don't see themselves welcomed or represented,” Naameh says. “It's very similar to coding; a lot of girls and students of color are afraid to code often because they feel like they might break something,” she continues.
The USC Viterbi Code.org Professional Learning Program alum saw these effects in real-time when students were hesitant to sign up for her high school computer science course. “I find that once they're in the class they are excited to explore, but getting them in there is the challenge,” Naameh explains. Her first year teaching Computer Science Principles, only 11% of students were girls, but after a big recruiting push, involving door-to-door classroom visits and empowering presentations, her class finally saw a 50-50 gender split. From there she found it natural and imperative to incorporate the virtue of equity into her computer science teachings.
Her time in the USC Viterbi Code.org training program gave her the groundwork to be able to effectively teach computer science to diverse students. “Code.org is really a special program because it acknowledges the reality on the ground; we don't have too many qualified CS teachers in the US. Code.org really makes the teaching content accessible to new teachers and engaging to students. It's all about hands-on learning,” Naameh expresses. “It gives you a groundwork you can build, modify and create and I think that is just an incredible resource to have.” Naameh was a member of USC Viterbi's 2020-21 Code.org Professional Learning Cohort, where she received nine days of intensive professional development with a community of 20 other new CS teachers.
According to Naameh, equity is all about “The Who”, or who gets to be represented in the classrooms, in the workforce, in the CEO positions and in the code. Disparities in computer science across gender and race will require “a combinational effort.” Like the boolean circuited digital logic, fairness in computer science will call for a collaboration between humans and the code that we produce to build and sustain equitable practices, says Naameh. And for her it all starts with making teachings as fun, engaging and relevant as possible for all.
From featuring in a virtual conference of over 2000 people to creating a series of workshops geared toward K-12 educators on culturally responsive computing, the CSTA Fellowship could not earn more of Naameh’s praise. Naameh says her time there helped her break out of a pattern of working in isolation and transform her efforts from individual to community-oriented.
“A great part of the CSTA fellowship is injecting joy, community and celebration into the mission. You know you're getting closer to your goal when the work is celebratory instead of just focusing on what is lacking.”
But the work is never done, she says. “It's not the final goal to have representation in the classroom, it's always about the next step. You want them enrolling at equal levels in STEM majors, but then you want persistence in those majors, and after that it's about career. We need to be constantly refining and stay on our toes because there’s always gonna be blindspots,” she says. USC Viterbi is committed to supporting teachers like Naameh in their misabout systemic change/hope.
Written by Annenberg rising junior, Anita Tiara Holman