Program Spotlight:

Computational Thinking and Equity

Computational Thinking and Equity Event

The “Computational Thinking and Equity” workshop was hosted by Bob Case Academy: Bridge to Calculus,  in conjunction with the Tapia Center at Rice University, and sponsored by the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC) and Northeastern University Math-Department, NSF funded RTG grant. 

The 4-day online workshop was led by Assistant Professor of Mathematics & Computer Science Paul Hand and colleague Karen Kassekert under the guidance of Program Director Rajini Jesudason and Dr. Valerio Toledano Laredo – and the service-learning staff of Northeastern University (Prof. John Bleakney). There were 7 undergraduate/graduate students or postdocs who were trained by Dr. Hand and Karen Kassekert to be instructors of the workshop and 19 student participants, 9 of whom were Spanish speaking/ 3 Indigenous (Mayan). There was one Spanish speaking instructor. 

In this workshop, the students learned about computational thinking by building an algorithm for college admissions with the help of spreadsheets. In this training, they were also read articles on equity and were introduced to the difference between equality vs equity. The personalized guidance was provided to every participant by forming teams of 4 students each and conducting discussion sessions.

Students worked in teams of two or three to design an algorithm for the admission process that is as equitable as possible as defined by them. They then ran a hypothetical data set of a student applicant pool and applied their algorithm to see if they got the types of students they were hoping for.  The student teams then presented it in front of industry panelists from the university as well as banking, analytics, and corporate backgrounds.

One of the participants who found the workshop helpful and supportive, stated, “I certainly did not expect to learn so much about the field of data science and equity during a four-day period; however, this workshop truly went beyond expectation. Every guest speaker was lovely and I left today feeling like I had gained crucial knowledge and new friends. Thank you to everyone involved”

This workshop was successfully summed up with the presence of College of science Assistant dean for Diversity Randall Hughes. The students received feedback from Industry panelists  from State Street, Biogen and others along with career guidance and words of wisdom from the Bridge to Calculus alumnus Chris Suplice and director Raj Jesudason.

These students applauded each others’ presentations and were able to compare their metrics. After the event, feedback was taken from the students and instructors to see if it would warrant a part II. The feedback was positive and a Part II indeed seems to be warranted! Students spanned various age groups and backgrounds from Freshmen to Seniors, Latinx, Asian and African-American. Questions included: What are your goals for the future? Has this camp helped you to think more deeply about equity? Has this camp changed your view of when computers should be used in society?

It was impressive to see that all of these students have such amazing goals. Almost all of them mentioned attending a top ranking university or preparing themselves for a career that they are truly passionate about. Some of them have specific career paths while some are still exploring what they can bring to the world.

Another fascinating takeaway from this event was that everyone felt that they are able to think more deeply about equity after attending the workshop. It’s one thing to attend the event, but to gain a better understanding of equity and how it affects you and those around you is super important to how you see the world and what it offers.

Finally, while the workshop focused on teaching students about the impact of technology on equity, their thoughts were their own. Some believed that computers are useful to prevent bias but others were skeptical because of who can have the power to program the computers. The younger generation seemed to have faith in the future, albeit some were more skeptical than others. This skepticism should not be looked at as pessimism however, as it is a work in progress as we grapple these important issues. 

While each of the participants had their own unique experiences, it is useful to look at the common themes. To summarize their experiences, the students and instructors’ feedback generated this Word Cloud.