Community experts, meet computer science education

January 10, 2022

Michigan State University researchers are creating pathways to connect experts from young people’s local communities to computer science learning.  

“We wanted to design a way to bring in individuals who are part of the communities in which schools are based,” said Assistant Professor Michael Lachney. “People who may look like the students, who may know them, who may know the history of their community.”  

Michael Lachney

Lachney and MSU colleagues led a pilot program, called culturally responsive debugging (CRD), with a group of 16 community members (including librarians, cosmetologists and urban farmers) in southeast Michigan. Their process and findings were published in TechTrends in June 2021. 

Previous research has shown the value in bringing cultural experts—a broad term that, in this paper, includes anyone with important cultural or social capital within communities, but who aren’t traditionally seen as educators—into computer science classrooms. But little research has been done on supporting cultural experts’ knowledge of computing. Culturally responsive debugging could be a way to address this gap.  

The pilot

In the CRD pilot, Lachney and fellow MSU scholars—including Professor Aman Yadav; Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral students Matt Drazin and Madison Allen; as well as Lachney’s longtime collaborator from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, William Babbitt—tested a workshop model for feedback, feasibility and to begin relationships with those who might be interested in hosting future iterations.  

Aman Yadav

Cultural experts who had background knowledge of pH (e.g., of soil for urban farmers and hair products for cosmetologists) participated with the activity to find and fix a bug in code that made pH of above 7 read as low and a pH of below 7 read as high. In reality, when measuring pH—or how acidic or basic an aqueous solution is—values less than 7 mean the solution is acidic and greater than 7 mean the solution is more basic, or alkaline.

Pilot participants more or less drew on their own professional and cultural expertise, and using knowledge from other participants, on how to go about the task.  

The theory was that by having these participants—and in the future, other community members—immersed in the same type of learning as K-12 students, the experts could see how computing can be relevant to their own work, and can therefore share that relevance with students and teachers, and vice versa.  

“It’s an anti-racist move we’re trying to make in terms of highlighting the sophistication and complexity of knowledge outside of school in terms of computer science,” Lachney explained in regards to the use of pH knowledge. “If we can highlight the fact that cosmetologists, when dying hair, are using pH to find the right chemical balance … or that braiders, when creating cornrows, are engaging in practices that can be translated into geometry, we’re showing these connections between culture and STEM are not arbitrary.” 

Highlighting brilliance

While the pilot expanded knowledge on learning to code—for example, one way individuals with no previous programming experience could better learn by pairing with novices—perhaps the bigger takeaway was future possibilities. The work illuminated avenues for cross-collaborations between schools and communities, teachers and leaders to make lessons more meaningful. 

For example, when students learn about pH, the way the information is represented in textbooks isn’t always immediately relevant to the lives of students, and therefore may not be as engaging. Yet, cultural experts that are known to and seen by students, such as cosmetologists and urban farmers, do use pH in their daily work. The challenge is to merge the cultural and the classroom components to strengthen the student experience. 

“When we highlight community practices, and translate them into content that connects to curriculum, it helps teachers, students, researchers recognize that sophistication,” Lachney said. “The culturally responsive debugging intervention is about changing institutional practices. It’s about highlighting the brilliance in the community.”  

Keep reading (and listening)

Lachney co-edited a special issue on justice-centered computing education for the Association for Computing Machinery’s Transactions on Computing Education journal. Lachney and fellow co-editors spoke during a panel session on the topic.