Jane Margolis: Bringing All Students Into the Loop of Computer Science Knowledge

Experiencing gender inequity led Margolis to advocate for computer science education for underrepresented students.

Jane Margolis, one of the driving forces behind Center X’s Into the Loop Alliance, speaks from personal experience about her commitment to making computer science accessible for all students, particularly students of color in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). She says that her earlier experiences as a telephone installer for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph (PT&T) in the 1970s taught her about the inequities that existed in technology fields.

“I had a summer job after college as a telephone operator,” she says. “Then affirmative action came into effect, and the phone company had to place women in traditionally male jobs, so I volunteered to be a telephone installer. I discovered that I loved it. I learned to work with tools, and I felt a sense of mastery of something that I had never even considered, because only men were telephone installers.”

Jane Margolis was among the women who broke the gender barrier for technical professions in the 1970s, when she worked as a telephone installer for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Courtesy of Jane Margolis

Margolis worked as an installer for approximately ten years, but then decided to return to her original career path in education. At the Harvard Graduate School of Education she studied gender socialization and gender, race, and inequities in education. After graduating in 1992, she was asked to conduct a research study at Carnegie Mellon University about the lack of female students in what was one of the top computer science departments in the nation. Her findings resulted in her first book, “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing” (with Allan Fisher. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002).

“At the end of that study, I was really concerned about the low number of students of color,” notes Margolis. “And so I vowed that my next study was going to look at underrepresentation, race, and gender at the high school level.”

“[Into the Loop] really came from a work experience that made me recognize the power of learning opportunities, stereotypes, role models, and the expectations of who can do what,” she says. “If this was true for telephone installers, how was it true in [other fields]?”

Margolis established the Into the Loop partnership between UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS) and the LAUSD in 2004, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Along with two colleagues, GSE&IS alumna Joanna Goode and Gail Chapman, at the time a leading member of the Computer Science Teachers Association, Margolis created the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) program, which has since expanded from six schools to 26 schools in LAUSD. This fall, Into the Loop and ECS received another round of funding from NSF, a total award of  $3,750,000 for the next five years.

Margolis says that the project has spread nationwide as “a model of what should be happening at the high school level for introducing students and teachers to computer science and computational thinking.”

“Over 2,000 kids a year in LAUSD are exploring computer science now,” she says. “Most of these kids are African American and Latino – two groups who have been traditionally underrepresented in the field of computer science. Additionally, while the national average of female students who are participating in AP computer science is about 19 percent, the LAUSD ECS enrollment is 40 percent female.”

Margolis reports that Exploring Computer Science is now the foundational course in a career technical education program in Chicago public schools, with 4,000 kids a year. The NSF has now funded several projects across the country, including one in Washington D.C.

With a focus on computational thinking, problem-solving, and algorithmic thinking as they relate to computer science, Into the Loop also provides professional development for ECS teachers. Margolis says that along with the ongoing issues of diminished budgets and resources and the fact that computer science is, despite its importance, still considered an elective, a learning community for teachers is key to the success of computer science in schools.

“At this point, there are no certification pathways for computer science teachers, so they are pulled from all different fields,” she says. “One of the places where budget cuts have really affected teaching is in reduced funds for coaching. The less funding you have for these types of programs and for teacher professional development, [the more] it will take its toll, especially in low-resource schools with a high number of underrepresented students.”

The ECS program for teachers focuses on content and pedagogical knowledge, inquiry and equity, and the development of a learning community committed to broadening participation in computing. She and a team of GSE&IS graduate student researchers examined the reasons why so few African American, Latina/o and female students at three schools in Los Angeles were  studying computer science. Their findings became the nucleus of her second book, “Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing” (with R. Estrella, J. Goode, J. Jellison, and K. Nao. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008).

“Into the Loop began with the ‘Out of the Loop’ research project,” Margolis explains. “Basically, we found that there was incredible confusion about what computer science is at the high school level. There were great disparities between the schools. In schools with high numbers of African American and Latino students, what was called ‘computer science’ was really limited to rudimentary skills like Word Perfect and Internet searching. We saw schools that were technology rich but curriculum poor. The equipment was there, but no curriculum, and no access for these students to real computer science learning.”

Margolis underscores the fact that “computer science is a gateway across all disciplines,” and says that after the initial study, the team began to develop the ECS curriculum for the high school level that would make computer science relevant and engaging for a diverse student population.

“Computer science is one of the fields that has the least participation of African Americans, Latinos, and females,” she says. “Our program is all about making this knowledge accessible to all students, so we refer to it as democratization of computer science knowledge.”

Margolis says that stereotypes and disparities in resources at home are also factors in the underrepresentation of minority and female students in computer science courses in LAUSD.

“We call it preparatory-privilege – kids who come from homes [with] multiple computers and where there are parents who know about computer science, these are the ones who come to school with all this background knowledge, and everyone then assumes that they are the only students with a ‘natural talent’ for the field,”  says Margolis.

“These assumptions are wrong, but they impact how teachers think and how principals think – and how kids themselves think,” she asserts. “There are beliefs that are deeply held that if you’re not doing computing, it must mean that you are not interested or able. Many kids think, ‘I couldn’t do that.’  But, the truth is that they’ve never been introduced to it in a way that engages them and demystifies the field.”

Margolis says that the concept of computer science needs to be redefined as “the knowledge and the skills that you need to create the technology, not just consume the technology. These skills, if you have them, give you a huge step up in entering the STEM fields or the many fields at the college level. By introducing more [students] to these concepts and this field, and by getting them more engaged and interested at the high school level, it will feed the computer science pipeline to the college and graduate levels.”

“This is a field that is changing the whole world. If you know computer science, doors are more open to you everywhere, and yet, it’s not in the schools [enough],” she says. “We believe that this is knowledge that should be available to all kids. Into the Loop is trying to make sure it’s available to all students, not just a select, privileged band.”