Exploring computer science: Making CS available to all

By Jean Ryoo - November 2015


Ryoo, J. J., Margolis, J., Lee, C. H., Sandoval, C.D.M., & Goode, J. (2013). Democratizing computer science knowledge: Transforming the face of computer science through public high school education. Learning, Media, and Technology, 38(2), 161–181. 


Although computer science drives innovations that directly affect our everyday lives, few K–12 students have access to engaging and rigorous computer science learning. This article describes an effort to democratize access to computer science education through a program based on inquiry, culturally relevant curriculum, and equity-oriented pedagogy.

Secondary public school computer science education has failed to engage young women and students of color from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. The reasons, according to Margolis, Estrella, Goode, Jellison-Holme, and Nao (2008) include:

  1. Lack of engaging computer science curricula that teach more than basic computing skills
  2. Absence of culturally relevant pedagogy that connects classroom learning to students’ diverse ways of knowing
  3. Little to no support of computer science teacher development and teaching communities due to the isolation of technology educators
  4. Lack of teacher certification pathways and methods courses that support inquiry-based, culturally relevant computer science pedagogy
  5. Stereotypes about who can excel in computer science that steer girls and students of color out of computing courses
  6. Educational policy that puts computer science on the academic margins of high schools (Margolis et al., 2008)

In response, a collaboration involving the University of California, Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District created the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) course for secondary public education. ECS connects key computer concepts and computational thinking practices to both larger social purposes and student agency in accomplishing these purposes.

The curriculum includes six units with core topics drawn from the Association of Computing Machinery’s Model Curriculum for K–12 (Tucker et al., 2003):

  1. Human-Computer Interaction
  2. Problem Solving
  3. Web Design
  4. Introduction to Programming
  5. Computing and Data Analysis
  6. Robotics

Research Design 

This paper reviews student demographic information, interviews, and surveys to describe the effect that ECS’s culturally relevant, inquiry-based, equity-oriented curriculum had on students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Research Findings 

The authors found that student enrollment in ECS grew steadily by approximately 50 percent per year from the program’s inception in 2008–2009 to the 2011–2012 school year, when 2,136 students were enrolled.

In 2010–2011, females represented nearly half of all ECS students, Latinos approximately 70 percent, and African Americans approximately 9 percent. These proportions reflect the demographics of student enrollment in the district, in dramatic contrast to California’s Advanced Placement Computer Science enrollment, which was 20 percent female, 7 percent Latino, and 1 percent African American.

In end-of-year surveys in 2010–2011, 70 percent of ECS students reported either “liking” or “loving” the curriculum. The majority noted that they were more likely to find computer science enjoyable at the end of the course than at the beginning. Students reported increased interest in college and in computer science majors.

The authors illustrate how ECS was culturally relevant, inquiry-based, and equity-oriented. For example, students in a majority-Latino school used mobile phones and computers to collect and analyze data about their community’s food and drink consumption. They used the data to propel the creation of a school garden that invited families and community members to focus on healthy eating practices and living off the land. The ECS project tapped students’ cultural assets, drawing connections among computing, immigration histories, and home life.

In another example, students from a school in South Central LA were assigned the task of creating message-driven video games around student-chosen topics. Students created games about teen pregnancy, cancer, gang violence, undocumented immigration, and more. They became deeply engaged with computer programming when the purpose of coding related to personal interests and a greater social purpose.

Theoretical Basis 

ECS builds both curriculum and pedagogy on the concept of “practice-linked identities” (Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2010; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nasir & Hand, 2008). Engaging practice-linked identities means rooting practices—for example, mathematical thinking—in one’s social and cultural practices and one’s sense of self. Engagement in learning a practice increases when people have access to the tools they need to acquire knowledge and skills, when they can take on integral roles and participate while learning, and when they have opportunities for self-expression.

Implications for Practice

Though ECS is used in schools, the principles driving its curriculum—including inquiry, equity, and cultural relevance—can be applied to informal science learning.

For example, this paper argues for making connections to students’ personal interests and out-of-school lives. Offering opportunities to change the world beyond the classroom can give youth from diverse cultural, socioeconomic, and linguistic backgrounds motivation to engage in meaningful STEM learning. Broadening participation in computer science and in STEM generally requires inviting youth to see how learning can be meaningful to their everyday lives and communities.

When youths’ personal interests, backgrounds, and cultures are respected, they can connect more deeply to learning. Furthermore, organizing STEM learning in inquiry-based projects driven by students’ questions and curiosity spurs youths’ interest in STEM learning.


Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2010). We be burnin’! Agency, identity, and science learning. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19, 187–229. 

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 

Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Jellison-Holme, J., & Nao, K. (2008). Stuck in the shallow end: Education, race, and computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Nasir, N. S., & Hand, V. (2008). From the court to the classroom: Opportunities for engagement, learning, and identity in basketball and classroom mathematics. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17, 143–179. 

Tucker, A., Deek, F., Jones, J., McCowan, D., Stephenson, C., & Verno, A. (2003). A model curriculum for K–12 computer science: Final report of the ACM K–12 task force on curriculum. New York, NY: Association for Computing Machinery, Computer Science Teachers Association.

Related Briefs:

  • Ballard, M. (2013). Student thinking about socioscientific issues: An ISE research brief discussing Levine Rose & Calabrese Barton, “Should Great Lakes City build a new power plant? How youth navigate socioscientific issues.” http://rr2p.org/article/264
  • Ballard, M. (2014). Place-based expertise and science knowledge shape civic action: An ISE research brief discussing Birmingham & Calabrese Barton, “Putting on a green carnival: Youth taking educated action on socioscientific issues.” http://rr2p.org/article/341
  • Matson, C. (2014). Engagement through practice-linked identity in basketball and in mathematics class: An ISE research brief discussing Nasir & Hand, “From the court to the classroom: Opportunities for engagement, learning, and identity in basketball and classroom mathematics.” http://rr2p.org/article/305
  • Wingert, K. (2014). “Science helps me figure things out”: Authoring science identities across time & place. An ISE research brief discussing Calabrese Barton et al., “Crafting a future in science: Tracing middle school girls’ identity work over time and space.” http://rr2p.org/article/298