Let’s Teach Computer Science Majors to Be Good Citizens. The Whole World Depends on It.

Digital technology has become increasingly important in the lives of all Americans, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, which has made many of us even more reliant on computing devices to execute our daily responsibilities.

Yet, many social, political and ethical concerns have emerged as the application of technology has grown in daily life.

For example, in 2020, the first known wrongful arrest through misidentification via facial recognition software occurred when police mistakenly accused a Black man of committing a crime. To address concerns about this kind of excessive citizen surveillance, city governments in some locales have restricted the use of facial recognition software, and a bill has been proposed to ban federal law enforcement agencies from using it. Meanwhile, in the political arena, evidence has emerged that data analytics were applied to deter Black voters from voting in the 2016 election and that similar technology has been applied to affect other countries’ elections as well.

To mitigate the perpetuation of these and related inequities, observers have called for increased diversification of the technology workforce. However, as books like “Brotopia” by Emily Chang and “Race after Technology” by Ruha Benjamin indicate, the culture of tech companies can be misogynistic and racist and therefore unwelcoming to many people. Google’s firing of a well-regarded Black scientist for her research on algorithmic bias in December 2020 suggests that there may be limited capacity within the industry to challenge this culture.

Change may need to start earlier in the workforce development pipeline. Undergraduate education offers a key opportunity for recruiting students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic, gender, and disability groups into computing. Yet even broadened participation in college computer science courses may not shift the tech workforce and block bias from seeping into tech tools if students aren’t taught that diversity and ethics are essential to their field of study and future careers.

Computer Science Majors Lack Citizenship Preparation

Unfortunately, those lessons seem to be missing from many computer science programs.

In a national study involving a multiyear examination of how student worldviews are changing at more than 120 colleges and universities (IDEALS), our research teams at Ohio State, North Carolina State (led by Alyssa N. Rockenbach), and the Interfaith Youth Core found evidence indicating that computer science majors have limited access to instruction about ethics and cultural inclusivity.

This study sought to uncover how students are changing in college, including how their academic majors might have an effect on their beliefs and attitudes. Of particular interest to us was students’ citizenship, or their level of agreement (strongly agree, somewhat agree, and so on) with these four statements at the beginning and end of their college careers:

  • I am actively working to foster justice in the world.
  • I frequently think about the global problems of our time and how I will contribute to resolving them.
  • I am currently taking steps to improve the lives of people around the world.
  • I am actively learning about people across the globe who have different religious and cultural ways of life than I do.

When we compared more than 5,500 student responses by major, what we found was striking. The number of computer science majors who highly agreed with these statements decreased across their four years in college and resulted in lower overall citizenship scores when compared to students in other majors.

In other words, students in computer science were graduating college with less preparation than students in all other majors to become agents of responsible change in an increasingly global citizenry.


Changing Curriculum and Context to Change Culture

These data underscore a key barrier to creating a technology workforce that is more oriented to the public good and highlight how undergraduate education would be an appropriate site of intervention.

Incorporating more education about morality and ethics into computer science education could help. That’s an effort underway at big institutions including MIT, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. Another strategy is drawing computer science back into the liberal arts, to better root technology in disciplines like history and sociology that explore social issues.

An additional approach would be to create educational contexts for computer science students that advance their capacity to enact social and cultural responsibility. According to the book “How College Affects Students: Volume 3,” which synthesizes findings from hundreds of higher education studies, such educational contexts develop: a respect for human rights; an analytic understanding of transparency, inclusivity, and openness to debate and their essential role in a participatory society; and the capacity to critically examine elements of any social arrangement.

What might such educational contexts in computing look like? For the past decade and a half, The Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI), a network of 40 colleges, has developed approaches to computer science education that have raised Hispanic students’ bachelor’s degree attainment in computing fields. With the support of federal funding, industry partners, and nonprofit educational agencies, CAHSI has developed peer tutoring, undergraduate research experiences, and professional clubs that successfully recruit and retain Hispanic students and other underrepresented groups in computing.

Importantly, these activities involve community building, intergenerational mentoring, and assets-based approaches toward computing education that affirm the humanity, participation and cultural strengths of students. These approaches cultivate the sense of belonging in computing and STEM fields that have been found to be critical for students of color. Additional internships and opportunities to attend computing conferences geared at uplift of women and Hispanics in computing have further emphasized student leadership capabilities to serve and support other students and their broader communities.

Examples like CAHSI indicate that incorporating a sense of ethical and cultural responsibility to the public good in computing is possible. There are several strategies that can be applied to enhance computing students’ sense of social justice and capacity to serve diverse communities. Integrating collaborative, active, experiential and culturally responsive approaches in computing education augments the engagement and success of all students in computing. Furthermore, these practices can transform the culture of computing to prepare students with the skills to better serve the public good.

Janelle B. Smith

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