Design Agency: Diversifying Computer Science at the Intersections of Creativity and Culture

Design Agency: Diversifying Computer Science at the Intersections of Creativity and Culture

Audrey Bennett (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA), Ron Eglash (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA), Michael Lachney (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA) and William Babbitt (Independent Researcher, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9932-8.ch003
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Abstract

The race and gender gap in US STEM education achievement reflects the legacy of historical forces which include colonialism and the exclusion of women in higher education. But it also reflects the decontextualized character of standard educational forms. We report on cSELF (Computer Science Education from Life), an intervention which brings together two alternative approaches. The “creative medium” approach offers a blank slate in which youth create their own innovations. The “indigenous knowledge” approach helps to translate traditional math and computing concepts into contemporary forms. Using the concept of “design agency” the authors describe how this merging of abstract formal structures, material creative practice, and cultural knowledge can improve underrepresented student performance, and foster learning practices in computing that offer broader forms of social expression and deeper STEM engagement for all students.
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Introduction

The phrase “broadening participation” is often used to describe efforts to decrease the race and gender gap in science and engineering education, and in this paper we are indeed describing an educational program focused largely on addressing the lower achievement rates and career interests of underrepresented ethnic groups (African American, Native American, and Latino students). However “broadening participation” can also describe the more general problem of a narrow, decontextualized form of education that can alienate all demographics. Broadening the scope of computing education can not only help address disparities in different social groups; it can also make technical education more attractive to all individuals, and help us create a generation of science and engineering professionals who can better incorporate an understanding of the world into their technical work. The program we report on, Computer Science Education from Life (cSELF) takes a modest step in this direction. Using simulations of artistic practices from a wide range of indigenous and vernacular cultures (Native American beadwork, African American cornrows, African fractals, etc.) students learn math and computing concepts that are embedded in a more diverse social setting. They then utilize these “heritage algorithms” in a creative process to develop virtual designs. Finally, they render the virtual designs in arts-based material media, adding an additional creative dimension to both the cultural references and the technical training. Using the concept of “design agency” we describe how this merging of abstract formal structures, cultural knowledge and material creative practice can improve underrepresented student performance, and foster learning practices in computing that offer broader forms of social expression and deeper STEM engagement for all students.

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