Without realizing it, K-12 STEM educators may be excluding girls and students of color from their curriculums. Researchers are hard at work exploring how to make these programs more engaging for them. 

Cassie Quigley, an Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, is researching ways schools can incorporate computer science into their curriculums and how they can help foster greater diversity in STEM. Quigley has visited over 30 classrooms throughout Western Pennsylvania to investigate the way students engage and collaborate in computer science projects, and how race and gender impacted the dynamic. She found that gender played a significant role: whereas boys were likely to do the coding, girls tended to take on the position of “scribe.”

“We’re creating what’s called vertical alignment: trying to create a pathway from K-12 where every child will have an experience with computer science skills called computational thinking. My role in this is the research component—seeing what works and what doesn’t,” Cassie Quigley told Pitt Wire. “We’re looking, in particular, at girls and students of color because those groups tend to be left out in computer science in huge numbers.”

Quigley and a colleague created a rubric dubbed “Co-ACT: Collaborative Problem Solving During Computational Thinking,” that gives teachers insight into how students work together and how their lessons impact girls and kids of color. 

The rubric includes five elements: 

  • Peer interactions and roles, 
  • The way students communicate together, 
  • How they problem solve, 
  • Their iterative thinking, 
  • The way they interpret data.

Amy J. Ko, Professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, is the Director of the Code & Cognition Lab, where she studies how k-12 and college students from different backgrounds learn computer science. Young people tend to think that if they don’t fit the stereotype of “nerd” that they won’t be good at technology and science. But the reality, she discovered, is it quite the opposite. When taught the right strategies, almost any student can be good at math and science. Her research revealed that in order for girls and students of color to succeed, STEM programs need to focus more on teamwork and inclusion, and less on competition. “You need to create your own culture of affirmation and belonging,” Ko told Daily UW. “If you can create a community of people of your own making, that’s a space for you to thrive in.” 

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