MSU scholars utilize boxing to bring cultural responsiveness to computer science education

September 5, 2023

The racial disparities that exist in field of computer science (CS) are concerning. According a 2023 report from Kapor Center, Black students represented just 6% of students in both advanced CS courses despite being 15% of the overall student population. Despite making up 13% of the labor force, Black professionals currently hold only 3.7% of technical roles and merely 4.0% of executive leadership positions.

Professor Aman Yadav and Assistant Professor Michael Lachney tapped the sport of boxing to change that narrative and to bring cultural responsiveness — the ability to adapt curriculum to engage with diverse individuals — to the field in hopes of broadening participation.

From left to right, a headshot of Professor Aman Yadav and Assistant Professor Michael Lachney.
From left to right, Professor Aman Yadav and Assistant Professor Michael Lachney.

The pair worked with coaches, mentors and academic staff at a boxing gym to develop physical computing projects children could participate in. Through two six-hour workshops, the scholars focused on two issues that were relevant to broadening participation and reshaping the culture of CS education. The first being how a boxing-influenced curriculum changed the children’s perceptions of CS.

From using a biometric sensor to measure heartrate to analyzing each boxer’s quickness on the speedbag with a photocell, the team was met with positive results. Children made creative adaptations to the curricular content and materials, which was brought on by their fascination and increased confidence in the field of CS. This addressed the second issue Lachney and Yadav examined.

Pre- and post-surveys showed significant positive changes in children’s attitude towards CS. Coaches also found value in the heart monitors used by the research team, which opened up a conversation about safety of the boxers.

“Often times, youth boxing gyms are places where there’s academic support, social emotional support and health and wellness content…and all this builds up around the culture and material of boxing,” said Lachney. In 2021, he conducted similar research with groups of cosmetologists. The experience led him to explore settings that are more traditionally associated with masculinity. This work was funded by the Joe L. Byers and Lucy Bates-Byers Endowment for Technology and Curriculum at Michigan State University’s College of Education.

“This work is really about broadening the participation of Black children in computer science,” said Lachney. “Black children are underrepresented in the Advanced Placement (AP) courses in computer science. There’s been strategies in development for broadening participation in computer science for over a decade.”

The challenge to implement new curriculum has been a source of stress for educators for quite some time according to Yadav, who has been a leader in ensuring teachers and students have access to computer science education.

“They [K-12 educators] consistently say that their hands are tied because of the curriculum that they are using,” said Yadav. “There is not enough space in the curriculum to include culturally responsive computing and as a result, canned curriculums are taught, and teachers and kids cannot make it their own.

Their research article titled: “Community Embedded Computing Education: Shaping Young People’s Perceptions of Self-confidence and Personal Expression with Computer Science in a Youth Boxing Gym” was published in March 2023 by the Association for Computing Machinery and features a full summary of their findings.

Yadav and Lachney presented the research at the 2023 Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education hosted in Toronto, CA.