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The Lives of Hidden Figures Matter in Computer Science Education

By Tiffani L. Williams

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 2, Pages 20-22

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The grand challenge of broadening participation in computing is to engage the world's tech talent in solving diversity, equity, and inclusion problems at scale. Broader participation in computing will lead to wider representations of computing professionals; fairer algorithmic decisions related to loan eligibility, work schedules, and unemployment insurance;4 and curricula that incorporate radical inclusion, educational freedom, and self-determination for all.2

As educators, we have a responsibility not to perpetuate the inequities of the past. This includes being aware of the culture of our classrooms and being explicit in how we cultivate diversity, inclusion, and belonging for all. Every computing student deserves a chance to see themselves in computing irrespective of demographics, interests, or socioeconomic status. Students must see human computing stories that they can connect to, identify with, or look up to.

Today, we often abstract away the human from computing. If we want to broaden participation, we must educate our students based on the early 17th-century origins of the word "computer," a human who performs calculations.1 Computers were exclusively human until the early 19th century when English polymath and inventor Charles Babbage introduced the Difference Engine, the first mechanical computer. The term "human computer" was then used to differentiate a person who computes from a mechanical computer. Human computers were often women who undertook long and tedious calculations to power some of the most significant advances in science, industry, and space technology in the 20th century.

Today, we often abstract away the human from computing.

Computer science (CS) stands on the shoulders of giants such as Alan Turing, Grace Hopper, George Boole, Ada Lovelace, and John von Neumann. Many of their stories have been told. Computer science is also built on the backs of human computers, who often toiled in relative obscurity. These hidden figures must be celebrated and not forgotten as they hold the key to revolutionizing CS education and diversifying computing.

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The Colored History of Computers

The 2016 blockbuster movie Hidden Figures showcased the nearly forgotten lives and contributions of three Black women Mary Winston Jackson, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Dorothy Johnson Vaughan. These women worked as "colored computers" during the civil rights era to solve problems for NASA engineers and scientists—including performing historical calculations that launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit and guaranteed his safe return.

The film shows the importance of diversity and inclusion to solve problems and spur innovation. Black girls and women saw a rare glimpse of themselves on film as mathematicians and engineers making monumental contributions to science. The stories of Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughan ushered conversations that broke racial and gender barriers among moviegoers of all backgrounds and generations.

The term "human computer" acknowledges humans perform the calculations required for engineering and scientific achievement. The film illuminates that the work of human computers did not occur in a vacuum. These computers performed their calculations under segregationist, racist, and sexist conditions. These brilliant Black women were considered second-class citizens, performed calculations for men, and were kept in the background in segregated office spaces.

Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughan's heroic stories took place during the upheaval of the 1960s civil rights movement in the U.S. And we are still living in turbulent times today. In 2020, we witnessed global civil unrest and protests of unarmed Black people murdered by the police and a raging pandemic that disproportionately affected communities of color in every sector of life, including education. Within CS, Black women students (and marginalized communities in general) must navigate an oppressive and violent educational experience that includes rejection from non-Black classmates when seeking partners for group assignments, difficulties in finding research opportunities due to exclusion, feelings of inadequacy, and not belonging while being hypervisible in predominantly white environments.7

Humans design, write, and test code. Since computing exists within societal norms, values, and practices, computational artifacts reflect human ingenuity and systemic bias. How can we expect our CS students to care about algorithms that discriminate without a human connection? Stories can connect technical innovation with human lives to celebrate human creativity, embrace radical inclusion, and dismantle institutional bias.

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The Power of Computing Stories of Genius, Struggle, and Sacrifice

Imagine yourself in the shoes of one of these famous female computer scientists:

  • Computer scientist A: She received a full academic scholarship from which she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French. Her achievements include induction into the Computer History Museum, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a scholarship and statue in her honor at her alma mater West Virginia State University.
  • Computer scientist B: In college, she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the first sorority for Black women. At NASA, she and her sorority sisters battled racial and gender barriers such as segregated facilities, being excluded from meetings, and lack of promotion and leadership opportunities.
  • Computer scientist C: After college, she became a public school teacher. Later, she was hand-selected as one of the first Black students to integrate West Virginia University. After completing her first year in graduate school, she decided to leave to start a family and be a full-time mother. She raised three daughters. When her husband became seriously ill, she began teaching again to support her family.

The aforementioned three famous female computer scientists relate to the genius, struggle, and sacrifice of Katherine Goble Johnson.3 How we present her story and her discoveries—as well as those of other famous computer scientists—influences students' interest in CS. Given these three facets of Johnson's life, we can ask students to which scientist do they most relate? Are they a trailblazer who has received myriad accolades similar to computer scientist A? Have they experienced discrimination or other barriers to achieving their goals similar to computer scientist B? Have they had to make career sacrifices because of familial responsibilities similar to computer scientist C? Or do they see themselves in parts of each?

Too often, when we share stories of the people behind the discovery, we rely on achievement stories in which scientific breakthroughs are portrayed as the result of extraordinary genius. Students respond differently when a scientist is painted in more human terms, as someone who experienced professional and personal obstacles before hitting upon the insight that made their discoveries monumental. Human stories foster a growth mindset by articulating real-life examples of people finding success after repeated setbacks. Stories help students see and understand why and how a scientist persevered. Furthermore, stories illustrate that obstacles are expected and provide students with tools and strategies for remaining motivated to persevere through the challenges they will encounter.6

Stories of struggle and growth make CS more welcoming for everyone.

Stories show even great scientists work hard. Students can take comfort that not knowing how to do something right away and perfectly is a gateway and not a barrier to success. Stories of struggle and growth make CS more welcoming for everyone.

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The Way Forward

There are many diverse stories in computer science to share. We cannot allow human contributions in computing to remain hidden and permit narrow myths and stereotypes to determine who belongs in the field.

As CS educators, we must incorporate human stories into our curriculum. Here are a few examples of how you could incorporate stories of the humanness of computing into the classroom.

  • Assign homework problems and in-class activities that incorporate learning the stories of people in computing. For example, students could listen to podcasts such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Diverse Podcasta and Immigrant Computer Scientist,b which shares personal stories (oral histories) of computer scientists who immigrated from their home countries to the U.S.
  • If you have a personal story related to the course material or the computer scientist being studied, share it with your students.
  • Share your own story and struggles with your students. What got you interested in computing? What have been setbacks in your CS journey? What have been your greatest triumphs and discoveries? While exposure to influential figures in computing is important, some students may be able to relate more to the stories of educators they see in the classroom than any famous person living or dead they have not met.

Incorporating stories into our classrooms may make many of us uncomfortable as CS educators. After all, we have been trained that science is person-neutral and separate from societal matters. Our stories, however, have everything to do with computing. By hiding our stories, we perpetuate narrow stereotypes (for example, singularly focused, asocial, competitive, male) of the discipline.5

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted face-to-face instruction to remote instruction instantly. Remote education took many of us out of our comfort zone, but we have found ways to navigate unfamiliar territory to educate our students. The pandemic has demonstrated we can educate differently to serve our students. Educating differently must include integrating the lives of hidden figures in the CS curriculum. Every student deserves a curriculum that provides them with opportunities to see themselves in computing. If the diverse stories of computing figures remain hidden, how can we expect to broaden participation in computing?

Let's share the untold stories of computing. And by doing so, we will return to computers that serve the people, energize us to dismantle exclusionary practices, and humanize participation in computing for all.

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1. Bruderer, H. Computers Were Originally Humans. (Oct. 7, 2021); https://bit.ly/3mX1nkC

2. Ivey, A. et al. Abolitionist Computer Science Teaching: Moving from Access to Justice. Presented at the Research in Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology (RESPECT), 2021; https://bit.ly/3CY4ZIM

3. Johnson, K., Hylick, J., and Moore, K. My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir. Amistad, New York, 2021.

4. Ko, A. et al. It is time for more critical CS education. Commun. ACM 63, 11 (Nov. 2020), 31–33.

5. Lewis, C.M., Anderson, R.E., and Yasuhara, K. `I don't code all day': Fitting in computer science when the stereotypes don't fit. In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on International Computing Education Research (Melbourne VIC, Australia, Aug. 2016), 23–32; doi: 10.1145/2960310.2960332

6. O'Hara, R. The power of stories to teach and motivate STEM students. (June 5, 2010); https://bit.ly/305ajLU

7. Rankin, Y.A., Thomas, J.O., and Erete, S. Real talk: Saturated sites of violence in CS education. ACM Inroads 12, 2 (June 2021), 30–37.

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Tiffani L. Williams ([email protected]) is is a Dean's Fellow of Inclusion, Belonging, and Engagement in the Grainger College of Engineering, and Teaching Professor and Director of Onramp Programs in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA.

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a. See https://bit.ly/3C4ouhD

b. See https://bit.ly/3c0D9Qp

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