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Computing and Community in Formal Education

image from Cornrow Curves visual programming application

Credit: Culturally Situated Design Tools

It was a cold morning in late February when Angela (pseudonym), an African American cosmetologist, arrived with a hair mannequin at a middle school in the city where her salon is located. Angela went to the main office and signed the guestbook before making her way to Brenda's classroom. Brenda (pseudonym) is a White technology teacher who has been an educator in the city for more than a decade. She has a strong passion for exposing students to educational technologies, especially those that support engineering and computer science (CS) lessons. This particular morning, she was prepared to implement a two-day programming lesson she developed with Angela and two university researchers.

The lesson used a visual programming application called Cornrow Curves (see Figure 1) that had been created by the Culturally Situated Design Tools research team (see Cornrow Curves helps teach block-based programming and transformational geometry by having young people explore an original body of African mathematical knowledge through the history and design of cornrow braids.1 This grounds it in culturally responsive computing, an area of research and practice that, in part, is intended to confront racial and ethnic underrepresentation in CS. Culturally responsive computing challenges the idea that students' families, interests, heritages, and community contexts are barriers to learning. Alternatively, students' identities are foundational for a quality education.

Figure 1. A student's Cornrow Curves design created during the lesson.

For culturally responsive computing researchers and practitioners, programming for programming's sake is part of the problem of underrepresentation, as it reinforces the idea of culture-free instruction. This assumption allows for the reproduction of the dominant culture in the classroom, which in the U.S. tends to reflect White middle-class values. To create education contexts that represent more than the White middle-class status quo, culturally responsive computing seeks to "translate" Indigenous knowledges, vernacular practices, civic engagement, hacking, and culturally situated forms of entrepreneurship into CS education.2

As a culturally responsive computing application, Cornrow Curves has the anti-racist benefit of highlighting non-European mathematics, which is important for young people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in demographically homogeneous or heterogeneous classrooms. When it is implemented in a school that serves African American and Black communities (for example, at Brenda's school over 50% of students identify as African American or Black) it has the added benefit of helping to broker school-community relationships. This gives local cultural experts opportunities to shape classroom curricula, which can be especially important for White teachers who are not from and do not live in the communities they serve.

Angela, Brenda, and the two university researchers delivered the Cornrow Curves lesson together, reinforcing the math content across virtual and physical braiding activities. Students moved back and forth between learning to physically braid with Angela (see Figure 2) and program braids on their computers. Each day the classroom was busy with children engaged in culturally and computationally rich activities. Reflecting on the lesson, Brenda explained the importance of collaborating with Angela, "I liked when she interacted with the kids, and she had some of my more difficult young ladies come over and actually be interested in doing Cornrow Curves, where on another occasion they might sit and not participate." What can this vignette tell us about the role of local cultural experts like Angela in broadening the participation of underrepresented communities in computing?

Figure 2. Angela uses transformational geometry terms to explain cornrow braiding.

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Culturally Responsive Computing in Formal Computer Science Education

While culturally responsive computing in out-of-school or after-school settings provides important insight into the strengths of cultural content for supporting CS education, there has been less attention to its role in formal classrooms. One possible reason for this is the fact that some aspects of culturally responsive computing cannot be easily implemented as a set of predetermined steps. As the name suggests, it aims to be responsive to locally situated contexts. Of course, culturally responsive computing can and should include pre-made curricula and tools. For example, the Exploring Computer Science curriculum (see includes culturally situated design tools and has rich opportunities for context-specific problem solving. However, if pre-packaging equates to standardization then there is a risk of shallowly representing computing-culture connections.

One way to make deep connections is to foster teachers' relationships with folks from outside the traditional school system who can provide insight into the larger context of students' lives, histories, and knowledge, as seen in the collaboration between Angela and Brenda. In another instance, Sandoval4 described a CS teacher of European descent who began to develop culturally responsive competencies by working with self-identified Indigenous Xican@s, attending a food justice symposium, and helping students connect classroom content to real-world places, such as community gardens.

Therefore, focusing attention on culturally responsive computing in formal CS education provides opportunities to highlight the importance of out-of-school assets for broadening participation and, potentially, strengthening the relationship schools have with the communities they serve. Indeed, in the second author's CT4EDU (see project on integrating computing ideas in elementary classrooms, teachers discussed a need to be engaged as partners with various stakeholders if curriculum innovations are to be successful.5 Specifically, teachers mentioned the need for increasing opportunities to interact with parents out-of-school so as to better understand students' cultures and identities in their classrooms. To build on this idea, we argue that CS teachers need to be supported to engage the communities they serve, developing culturally responsive computing competencies by collaborating with parents, cultural experts, entrepreneurs, technologists of color, and others in the creation of culturally and computationally rich formal CS education.

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Computing in Community

A collaboration like the one between Angela and Brenda provides insights into how culturally responsive computing competencies can be developed not only by in-service teachers but also their community partners. When asked if she learned anything new about computing from creating a design in Cornrow Curves, Angela explained, "Oh yeah. I feel like a scientist now … a scientist and a teacher now, I feel like I can just conquer the world, just kidding [laughs]. No, but I do, I feel like I am a lot more knowledgeable in, you know, computer programming, geometry, hair braiding." Angela's suggestion that she learned new information about her own area of expertise—braiding—may indicate that school-community collaborations can bring CS and cultural knowledge into mutually beneficial relationships. If this is the case, working with teachers as part of formal CS education may provide a way for cultural experts to take what they learn and incorporate it into relevant community locations (such as a hair salon). Formal culturally responsive computing education, then, would become a multidirectional strategy for broadening participation by increasing the chances that students will not only be exposed to CS in the classroom but also while going about their everyday lives.

For example, in the first author's work on the Cos-computing (cosmetology + computing) project,3 3D printed cornrow braids, inspired by high school students' Cornrow Curves designs, were displayed at an African American arts and culture festival (see Figure 3) and eventually placed in a cosmetology salon. As a result, one stylist at the salon, who had worked with the high school students and presented at the festival, explained how the 3D prints prompted conversations about CS concepts (for example, algorithms) with her customers, adding computing to the existing repertoire of technical and scientific knowledge (for example, pH, hair follicle anatomy, and so forth) that is part of everyday salon conversations. This creates a type of loop between formalized CS knowledge and the localized cultural knowledge that may be familiar to students. The idea is that culturally responsive computing collaborations can make CS education and local sites of cultural wealth mutually supportive, diffusing knowledge of computing-culture connections across both school and community locations.

Figure 3. A "Cos-computing" booth, featuring 3D-printed Cornrow Curves designs alongside a pH sensor activity, at an African American arts and culture festival.

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However, asking teachers who are not from the communities they serve to develop local relationships is a difficult task. Many teachers face school budget cuts, have little control over the types of professional development their schools provide, and are expected to standardize instruction. Therefore, putting additional requirements on teachers to create deep forms of culturally responsive computing alone is not practical. Instead, school districts, unions, and universities should facilitate school-community relationship building by paying local cultural experts to attend or co-design professional development programs and workshops alongside teachers and technologists from industry or the academy. In addition, these stakeholders can seek to leverage the expertise of teachers and school staff who do live in the communities they serve.

Figure 4 represents the different ways that CS educators, cultural experts, and technologists might collaborate in their collective development of culturally responsive computing competencies. While they all bring individual knowledge, we think that the trading and intersecting of expertise at the different vectors will provide opportunities for deeper multi-directional culturally responsive computing engagements, connecting academic pursuits to cultural wealth (for example, hair salons) and technological wealth (for example, computer science departments). The loop in the middle reminds us that in-school and out-of-school contexts can be mutually supportive and reinforcing in broadening participation efforts.

Figure 4. A diagram to think about the depth of culturally responsive computing implementation across expertise.

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Computing educators are in a good position to find innovative ways to support broadening the participation of African Americans, Native Americans, Latinxs, and other underrepresented groups in CS. But to develop these competencies requires teachers to connect with the communities where students live and work. This may mean CS educators will need to engage in life beyond the school walls (for example, attending public events, participating in community art projects, spending money at local businesses, and so forth), while also creating opportunities for cultural experts to shape CS curricula. With this in mind, culturally responsive computing aims to repurpose CS education by making it meaningful to not only students, but also to their families and communities. Increasing the buy-in that CS education has with local community members and representing it in culturally meaningful locations may increase the possibility that students will find CS to be a meaningful field where they want to participate and feel like they belong.

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1. Eglash, R. African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1999.

2. Eglash, R., Gilbert, J.E., and Foster, E. Toward culturally responsive computing education. Commun. ACM 56, 7 (July 2013), 33–36.

3. Lachney, M., Babbitt, W., Bennett, A., and Eglash, R. Generative computing: African-American cosmetology as a link between computing education and community wealth. Interactive Learning Environments (2019), 1–21.

4. Sandoval, C.D.M. Ancestral Knowledge Meets Computer Science Education: Environmental Change in Community. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2019.

5. Yadav, A. and Wilson, J. CT 4EDU: Building equitable access for CT in elementary classrooms. Poster presented at CS for All Knowledge Forum, El Paso, TX, (Sept. 2018).

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Michael Lachney ( is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA.

Aman Yadav ( is a Professor in the College of Education and Director of the Masters of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA.

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