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Students have a right to know the complex histories of computing, especially as it pertains to questions of power, ethics, and social justice.

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I’m so deeply honored to keynote CSTA 2023! Drawing on my recent research, as well as my own experiences in computing and engineering, I will make the case that the current moment presents an incredible opportunity and responsibility to widen what I call the “learning tent” of computing education. 

While the concept of algorithms and computation have been around for centuries across human cultures and societies, computer science as a unified discipline emerged in the years after WW2. The story of computing, contrary to what many may believe, is not simply solitary (white male) geniuses tinkering away in their garages and unlocking the potential of computers for the benefit of humanity. Rather, computing as a new field is a product of unique historical, sociopolitical, and economic needs and realities. In a post-war United States, government agencies including the NSF and the Department of Defense, along with a growing tech industry poured millions into shaping a new discipline that was poised to have transformative implications for the future of war, business, and culture. And yes, for American power and global influence. Yet, this incredibly complicated and fascinating history is seldom visited with students in K-12 computer science classrooms. Students have a right to know the complex histories of computing, especially as it pertains to questions of power, ethics, and social justice. Embracing a historical perspective on technology and computing also helps debunk the wild notion that computing is neutral, or that technological progress just naturally occurs without deliberate human actions and societal influences. 

This leads us to another key issue. There is a rapidly expanding body of social science research on exactly this topic. Scholars like Ruha Benjamin, Kate Crawford, Safiya Noble, Virgina Eubanks, and Simone Browne, to mention just a few of my personal favorites, have produced remarkable scholarship demonstrating the sociopolitical and racialized impacts of a host of new technologies. But the impact of tech is only half the story. Crucially, these scholars have shown how the actual design of technologies can often be traced back to the highly political goals and values of their creators. 

I will make the case in my keynote that the histories of computing, as well as the politics and ethics of new technologies, are exactly the kinds of topics that our students need and deserve in computer science classrooms. But don’t just take my word for it. I will never forget the words of Lupe, a 10th grade Latina student in a Computer Science Academy in Oakland, California, where I was conducting my dissertation research almost a decade ago. Lupe was razor sharp, one of the best students in the class with a clear talent for coding and all things tech. She was also a self-proclaimed feminist and budding activist. I remember her with a copy of bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman? tucked under her arms. When I asked her if she was planning on pursuing computer science as a college major and possible career, she told me that while she loves to code she is afraid to go into computer science because she doesn’t want to “become a sell out.”  In her mind, computing was too closely associated with what she viewed as an immoral tech industry that was not invested in the well being of communities of color like the one she was from in Oakland.  

I’ve since come across so many students like Lupe, both in high school classrooms as well as on college campuses. Students who love technology, but also love their communities. Students who want to become amazing coders and engineers, and stay true to their identities. Sadly, too often students like Lupe leave computing not because they couldn’t “hack it,” but because there wasn’t enough of what I think of as moral substance to nurture their deepest desires and curiosities. 

I firmly believe one of the most vital tasks of computer science (and engineering) education in the next decade or two is figuring out how to attract and retain students like Lupe.  This will no doubt be a complex and multi-faceted endeavor. In the keynote this summer, I will share stories from my own research to argue that one promising approach is widening the tent of topics we cover in CS learning environments to include histories of our field as well as the politics and ethics of emerging technologies. I will invite you to imagine with me how this might fundamentally shift the image of computing for the better in the minds of thousands of current and future students. 

Dr. Vakil will keynote at CSTA 2023, sponsored by Amazon Future Engineer.

Learn more about Dr. Vakil’s keynote and register on our conference website.

About the Author
Dr. Vakhil Headshot

Sepehr Vakil is an assistant professor of Learning Sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, Affiliate Faculty in the Science in Human Cultures Program, and the Founding Director of the Technology, Race, Ethics, in Education Lab (TREE Lab). Previously he was Assistant Professor of STEM Education and the Associate Director of Equity & Inclusion in the Center for STEM Education at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his PhD in the Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology program at UC Berkeley, and his B.S and M.S in Electrical Engineering from UCLA.