As a white male tech professor I’m not exactly the go-to demographic for creating a feeling of inclusion among marginalized students. But even a BOWG (bald old white guy) can create a more encouraging and inclusive classroom experience. Here are some very simple thoughts.
Showcase Diverse STEM Stars: Use your classroom or office wall space to highlight framed covers and articles with STEM stars that look like your students. Robotics star Jorvon Moss aka Odd_Jayy was recently on the cover of Make and is framed on my wall. So is an article on MIT grad Joy Buolamwini who researches fairness and ethical machine learning. I’m constantly learning iOS skills from @thedevme and @ishabazz (who gives a very inspiring talk on Programming with Purpose worthy of student sharing). Dave Cancel and Elias Torres are building one of Boston’s star firms that has recruited many of my students and have often shared thoughts and inspiration as LatinX founders. There are MANY others (do an Internet search, ask friends). The Wired magazine covers of female engineers Limor Fried and Simone Giertz also take up space on my office that would otherwise hold my degrees (students know I have a Ph.D. — I don’t need this on my walls).
Use Social Media to Link Former and Current Students: Successful students who have overcome obstacles love to pay it forward. Encourage all of your students to connect via LinkedIn, follow on Twitter, and stay in touch via other social media that you feel comfortable with. You can use these “alumni” of your classes for ideas such as “keep me informed of scholarships, programs, conferences and recruiting events for diverse STEM students.” And if a student comes to you with a struggle, you can connect them with an alum willing to mentor someone new to white collar job searches, navigating the job market as a non-native speaker, or other challenge not in your wheelhouse. You may have talented colleagues who are admins or faculty from diverse groups who are also willing to help, but be considerate to ask their willingness and limits, as many PoC and women STEM staff are overtaxed by having to do all the extra “diverse STEM stuff” in addition to their own job, with no additional boost to promotion or pay (if you get promoted, change this). Also — encourage students to form a club to help their prospects. A few years back I took a bunch of tech-focused female student leaders to lunch, suggested they formed a club, offered my contacts list, and shut up and got out of the way unless I was asked to help. The result was the Boston College Women Innovator’s Network — one of the most active and consistently supportive professional groups on campus. You won’t have all of the answers, but you can be a super-connector to link your students with helpful resources.
Structure Courses for Success, Not Intimidation and Failure: To be very clear — many of your students from underrepresented groups will be dynamite out of the gate, but if you teach courses where some students of color & women (and really anyone) haven’t already had tech exposure and thus have their starting blocks set further back from Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hrs expertise goal, then discouragement is common. It’s easy for a student who hasn’t had prior STEM experience to get discouraged in classes where students who have already had STEM exposure are visibly dominant. Feelings of “I’m behind & will never catch up” lead to abandoning study. Structure your course to lower early discouragement & boost opportunities for students to hit milestones. Celebrate these.
Flipped courses help: In these classes, follow-along, learn-by-doing lessons are done outside of class during ‘homework time’ and that learning is reinforced via in-class exercises. Students who might not ‘get it’ the first time a topic is presented can rewatch lessons as needed. Students seeking help then come to office hours with specific questions, not “I’m totally lost.” In-class, camaraderie builds as students who “get it” help those who are new to topics and you create a culture of asking for and giving help. Everyone feels better when in-class exercises replace getting steamrolled by too-fast lecturing. Yes, creating flipped class videos is a LOT of work, but high-quality work can help you reach more students. You might even be able to partner with other educators who share your goals and teaching topic. See if there is already content you can leverage (my apps course is in a playlist & there’s lots more content on my channel). If you have a committed administrator — see if you can get financial support to build flipped class content, or seek an external grant — especially if your work is focused on STEM diversity.
Grading systems should encourage improvement, not the “weed em out” engineering school crutch: Much of coding is about pattern recognition and new students often haven’t seen and used new patterns enough to reinforce logical thinking and to prompt reuse. Lower the stakes of early tests and give students an opportunity to learn from early mistakes and demonstrate they’ve acquired skills in areas that may have initially tripped them up. One way is to allow retakes with limited penalties that encourage students to stick with a topic, rather than getting discouraged by early struggles. You want your students who stumble but then state “now I see it,” to then be able to demonstrate their new knowledge and stay committed to learning. This is NOT lowering standards or providing easy As. It provides an opportunity for those who’ve not already had STEM exposure to keep at it until they catch up.
Be careful of the trap of “grade inflation” concerns: Yes — it’s very bad if we allow students to coast through classes, earning As without challenging them, and admins need to step in to address this with faculty that aren’t offering strong educational experiences. But admins also need to be aware that a numeric range is not a reflection of what’s going on inside a classroom and they need to set better faculty assessment than sloppy-simple target ranges. Our role as faculty is not to fit students into a bell curve of performance — it is: 1) to set a high bar for expectations, 2) expose that bar, and 3) help as many students as possible get over that bar. If, at the end of your course, students say “it was hard, but it was worth it”, then you’re doing your job. If you’re spending time fretting over fitting students inside of administrator-set ranges, then the administrator that sets policies needs to rethink and improve faculty course assessment.
Project focus: Nothing empowers quite like the feeling of pride students get through “I built this.” Design courses that have students build something useful. In my University intro coding class, students are pushed to go from no coding knowledge to full-stack iOS app development (accessing a database, multi-user support) in a single semester. During the course of the semester students learn to code while learning to build apps. Many students say this is the first class where they “showed off their homework.” They build fun apps, games, productivity utilities, a weather app that can show personal photos (a great gift for Mother’s or Father’s Day) and finish with a social app for restaurant reviews & photo sharing. I’ve demanded more of students in this class than any other I’ve taught but have never had a student complain about the workload, because students feel a clear sense of accomplishment throughout the course. Are there other clever tricks you can use to make coding more fun? Python is often taught with text-driven coding that seems worlds apart from the graphical and app-driven computing most use. Can you combine python with physical computing hardware so their code flashes, senses, and does fun and useful things? Can you teach coding while building web sites and apps? You don’t need to master the fundamentals before getting code to get graphical, “appy”, or drive a speaker or LED strip.
Showcase student achievement: If you have projects — have students show these in a public forum. Bring in pizza or snacks and let them invite friends. Encourage faculty and potential employers to show up. Make a video of project presentations to share with new students in the next class. Be sure to lead the video with diverse students and capture impactful quotes such as: “I’d never done this before” and “this was my first (app, electronics project, etc).” Here are some examples of my students presenting their apps projects (scroll down for videos), and presenting their physical computing projects.
Apologies if this seems white-splainy or man-splainy. If you have ideas, share them in comments, although mean, snarky, trolly comments will be deleted. Nobody trying to make a difference needs to see that.
Prof. John Gallaugher teaches Technology and Business at Boston College. All lectures for his Beginner to Full Stack Swift/iOS development course are available free on YouTube (it’s taught as a flipped class, with lectures online). He also teaches Physical Computing (think wearables, robots, Arduino, and Raspberry Pi), and he writes one of the leading Information Systems Textbooks used in business schools worldwide. You can reach him on Twitter via: @gallaugher.