Computer science is widening the education gap

Minority students are in danger of being made technologically rich but cognitively poor.

This article is excerpted from the afterword to Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, by Jane Margolis, and is reprinted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved.

The author, Richard Tapia, currently holds the following positions at Rice University: University Professor; Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering; Associate Director of Graduate Studies, Office of Research and Graduate Studies; and Director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education.

Read an in-depth interview with Jane Margolis in The Grill.

I am a Chicano (Latino, if you wish) and a mathematician, a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Fifty years ago, I was in eleventh grade at Narbonne High School in Lomita, California, widely perceived at the time as one of LAUSD's lowest performing high schools. The principal had announced there would be a mathematics test given to the entire school and the student with the highest score would be given a medal at a school- wide assembly. I was not motivated strongly by school, more into cars than books, but I knew I was good in math. I wanted to do well on that test, win the medal, and receive the acknowledgement I knew I deserved but had never received.

I did earn the highest score on the test, but rather than being awarded my medal in front of my peers as promised, the principal did not schedule the assembly and instead gave me the prize in his office. I was hugely disappointed and angry at what felt like a judgment that I was unfit to be honored by the school. So angry, in fact, that today, fifty years later, it still bothers me. This was certainly not the first time I had an experience like this, nor would it be the last. I always felt that I was smart and from first grade to twelfth grade was among the best in the school in math. But, with the exception of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Bentwood, none of my teachers or counselors acknowledged me, complimented me, or encouraged me. No teacher or counselor said that I was smart or told me that I should (or could) go to college.

In contrast, I came from a home where I was taught -- and where I witnessed -- confidence and determination. My father and mother, both of whom came to Los Angeles from Mexico with the odds stacked against them, were the hardest working people I have ever met. My father taught the value of inclusion -- he loved everyone and they loved him. My mother taught me that pride in being Mexican, hard work, and education can take you any place you want to go. She was aware that her message was in contrast to more widely held beliefs in our community and spent a good amount of time dealing with this conflict, helping us to maintain our pride and belief that we could: si se puede.

But, as Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing demonstrates, the forces within a school are powerful, and once I graduated from Narbonne, I did not use or build on my mathematical talents; instead, I went to work in a factory making mufflers. I packed fiberglass in the hot sun next to a fellow employee named Jim, who was white, in his forties, and married with four kids. Every day he said, "Richard, you are smart. Don't make the same mistake that I made. Go to college." Thanks to his encouragement, two months later I enrolled in Harbor Junior College in Wilmington, California, where I excelled, especially in math and chemistry. Two of my professors, Stuart Friedman and David Frisch, told me in very strong terms that I was going to UCLA, and I agreed.

I was not a star as an undergraduate at UCLA, but my "Bs" were good, and I learned a lot of math. During my senior year, two of my friends told me that they were going to continue their study of mathematics in graduate school. Relying on a logic I had developed in the absence of meaningful feedback from others, I told myself that I was better than they were, so I should go to graduate school, too. Just as in high school (and just like the students in Stuck in the Shallow End), I found my way to the next level of education much by chance, with little help from those who should have been looking out for me.

Graduate school was a natural fit for me, and I did well. As I neared completion of my PhD at UCLA, David Sanchez, the only Mexican American Professor in the Mathematics Department, asked me about my plans. I was unsure, but he believed in me; following that conversation, he worked with the chair of the Mathematics Department to secure me a postdoctoral offer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which turned out to be the best place in the world for me. There, I worked with several of the world's finest mathematicians and established a strong network that has lasted me a lifetime. More than thirty years ago I transitioned from Wisconsin to Rice University in Houston, Texas, where I have built my career.

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Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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