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The Grill: Jane Margolis

The UCLA diversity champion talks about missed opportunities, myths that justify exclusion, and the power of a simple invitation.

By Joyce Carpenter
June 15, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Computerworld - Jane Margolis is now an academic and book author, with a focus on equity in education and computer science. But it was one of her first jobs -- climbing poles as a telephone installer -- that helped set her future course.

Your work focuses on the intersection of technology, education and diversity. How did you develop that particular interest? Somewhat serendipitously. In the early '70s, I got a summer job as a telephone operator. Then I became a telephone installer, when installers climbed telephone poles. I had two realizations through this job: that I had never worked with tools before, and why had I never been introduced to this? After seven years, I went back to graduate school. The focus of my studies was gender socialization and education.

Dossier

Name: Jane Margolis
Title: Senior researcher
Organization: Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
Location: Los Angeles
Fantasy dinner party guests: "The Obamas before they were famous."
Best book read this year: When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood, by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
Favorite technologies: The pencil and the sewing machine.
Technology pet peeve: "It's somewhat addicting."
Ambition: "To make a difference and be calm."

Your most recent book, Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, is based on research at three schools in Los Angeles. How did demographics affect access to quality computer science education at the high school level? One school was a predominately Latino school, overcrowded. Most of the students were on free and reduced [cost] lunch. Another school was predominately African-American, a middle- and working-class school. The third was in a white, very wealthy section of Los Angeles. It had one-third students from the neighborhood and two-thirds students of color who traveled from around the city. All three were "digital high schools," which was a state initiative to get technology into the schools and get the schools wired up to the Internet in the late '90s.

The schools with the high concentration of students of color had the most rudimentary of computer science instruction -- word processing, cut-and-paste assignments. AP Computer Science, as a regular course, was only at the school with the higher number of white students. [The course] had very few students of color in it. It was mostly white male students.

"Stuck in the shallow end" -- can you explain that pool metaphor? I read an article that talked about African-American kids drowning three times more than white children. I learned that 60% of African-American kids do not know how to swim. It turns out that there's a legacy of denied access to swimming opportunities that goes all the way back to Jim Crow, when access to swimming pools, beaches [and] lakefront was very contested. As in every case of segregation, there are belief systems that arise to justify the segregation. There were these absurd notions that blacks were not swimming because they were less buoyant. Those notions masked the history of denied access.

The more I learned about swimming and the denied access to swimming, and the results of people not knowing how to swim, I saw this metaphor for what was happening in computer science.

What do you think are the most significant challenges for the teachers? Lack of a curriculum, lack of a sequence of courses, lack of computer science teaching methods courses, lack of professional development opportunities in a field that is constantly changing, and lack of a learning community. Often, there are just one or two teachers in the school who teach the computer courses. They don't have a learning community to support each other and learn from each other.

Which is the more lacking: the technology in the schools or the qualified teachers? The qualified teachers. In 2000, we saw schools aglow with new technology. We called it "technology rich, but curriculum poor." Nine or 10 years later, those same pieces of equipment are in the schools. A lot of schools need updated technology, but some of them have it. What's missing across all of the schools is the teachers and curriculum.

The afterword to your book is by mathematician Richard Tapia. He seems to contradict all of the stereotypes that you're currently mentioning. That's right. And there are many people who contradict those stereotypes. Richard Tapia is one of the leaders in the field for diversity and computing. He came from the type of schools we researched. He grew up in Los Angeles. He was not seen when he was in high school for the potential that he had. It wasn't until junior college, where a teacher saw the math brilliance, mentored him and got him into UCLA and onwards. But he was unseen and stuck in the shallow end. [See "Computer sciences widens the education gap" to read Richard Tapia's afterword.]

You did some work to help teachers recruit a more diverse student body. Were there any approaches that were particularly successful? Almost anything is successful. One teacher wrote a letter to girls in the top math courses explaining how computer science could be a really interesting course for them and that they are prepared. She made incredible increases in the number of students enrolled in her courses. Just inviting students in can really make a tremendous difference.

Your previous book, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, focused on the college level. What were the most significant challenges for women entering computer science there? One issue we found was that female students' motivation for studying computer science was often linked to other fields, like environmental science or robotics or space or developing teaching programs for kids. We described this as computing for a purpose, as opposed to just hacking for hacking's sake. Unfortunately, too many students experienced the first years of the curriculum and culture as more narrow and programming-centric; too many of the female students then felt they didn't belong in computer science and felt a gap between their motivation and the computer science culture and curriculum.

This has changed. Throughout the country, people now realize that you want to introduce and contextualize computer science in college in a meaningful, exciting and engaging way.

What do you see as the long-term consequences of the current pipeline? Computer science today is a door-opener across fields, from film animation to scientific research. In education, we call that "high-status knowledge." It opens up professional doors and can open doors to college and more education. I'm concerned that that knowledge be accessible to all students.

Where can teachers find resources to help them teach diverse students? A very important organization is the Computer Science Teachers Association. They are part of [the Association for Computing Machinery], and they run a whole slew of programs for high school teachers.

The National Science Foundation has a division called Broadening Participation in Computing. There are projects all around the country trying to figure out ways to get more involvement and engagement with African-Americans and Latinos and all under-represented minority students at all levels. Those programs focus on race and gender.

Then there's the National Center for Women and Technology, a large national organization that has brought together academia, social scientists, computer scientists and industry to reimage how people think of computer science and to get more females involved in the field.

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