Walking into her Social Justice Software & C++ class (CSC 490/496), computer science senior Comal Virdi was caught off guard by the amount of diverse faces looking back at her. This unusual demographic not only struck Virdi, but introduced questions about the nature of diversity in computer science at Cal Poly, she said. 

This experimental course is a brand new addition to the computer science curriculum this quarter and is taught by professor Zoe Wood. 

According to Wood, the class will be building mapping visualizations based on different social justice-related data, like the US Census data and police shooting demographics. 

“Creating these maps of different things like racial demographics and police shooting demographics — it brings up a way to unify our understanding of the history of our nation, the systems in our nation,” Wood said. 

According to Wood’s own calculations, this class’s makeup is about 40% female, compared to her typical 22% female student makeup — doubling expected distributions.

White men dominated Virdi’s previous computer science classes, which included just a handful of female-presenting people, according to Virdi, but this shifted dramatically with CSC 490/496. 

“We’re at least creeping upon 50/50 [as the ratio of women to men], and I can count on one hand how many white people are in that class,” Virdi said. 

Although this new demographic was refreshing to Virdi at first, its implication raised more questions. 

“Why does [this social justice class] have so few white people and why is that the class that the tides have changed?” she asked. 

Then she answered her own question.

“[Sometimes] people of color are the only ones who really see the importance of a class like this because we’re the ones who are more affected by social justice initiatives,” Virdi said.

According to Virdi, the mindset of many computer science students is focused around making money, so topics in the social justice realm are often overlooked.

“This is what the result is like,” Virdi said. “Your demographic just completely switches when you offer a class like this.” 

Yet a common theme amongst herself and her CSC 490/496 classmates, Virdi said she noticed, was an appreciation for this material and a want to incorporate this work into their careers.

“I feel seen in classes like these. I feel more proud to be a student at Cal Poly when we offer classes like these,” she said. “We’re actually noticing what’s going on in the world and we’re actually using our major to try and do something about it.”

Computer science junior Emma Sauerborn and fellow CSC 490/496 student said some CS students fail to recognize that everyone has a stake in computing, and that one’s identity is central in this field. 

“Some people in tech in general just see sociology and stuff like that as subsidiary or extra, but really, when you write software, you’re literally encoding your values into a piece of software,” Sauerborn said. 

Dealing with software involves deliberate and important decisions. 

“Software is an abstraction,” Sauerborn said. “There’s no way to really capture the nuance of a human being in code, so when you’re writing code that involves people, you have to make assumptions.”

She points to one example of assumptions being made about names. 

“If you’re trying to get someone to put in the first and last name, that’s already an assumption that they will have [a] first and last name, but throughout the world names differ so much,” she said. 

Knowing this, Sauerborn said diversity and a variety of experiences in STEM is necessary. 

“The software you’re building should be for all people and if you say that the software is universally applicable, then it has to be universally applicable and can’t just be made for people that look like you,” she said. 

Computer science junior and diversity director for Women Involved in Software & Hardware (WISH) Piper Feldman said she met a lot of men in her classes that are comfortable shutting down women in class. 

“I’ve definitely been in breakout rooms where I’ve just had men mansplaining to me topics I already knew, so it’s more of an annoyance for me, but it’s really discouraging for other people,” Feldman said.

She also agreed that implicit bias finds its way into code. 

“Code is only as good as its programmers,” Feldman said. “If you have bigoted programmers, you end up with bigoted code, unfortunately.”

She pointed to the example of the hotel soap dispenser that could only detect white skin. It was found a white team developed this product and without having done testing on darker skin types. 

Diversity is not only essential for fair programming itself, but extends further. 

“Tech is the future and gatekeeping any certain group from it is really gatekeeping that group from success in the future and that’s a dangerous cycle,” she said. 

Computer science senior Kiran Pinnipati is auditing the course for the quarter. She said the experience as a female CS student warrants extra considerations. 

“There is always this need to go the extra mile if you’re a girl. I feel like everything is just more pronounced,” Pinnipati said. “So if you don’t do well in something, people will take that and extend it further, like in terms of undermining your credibility.”

In terms of further implementing and encouraging diversity in CS, Pinnipati said she would like to see more female professors to relate to on a more intimate level as a student. She added that clubs on campus like WISH and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) also help to maintain a community for underrepresented students. 

Professor Wood started developing this class in January. The racial tensions in the US, such as the murder of George Floyd, served as a personal turning point for her. 

“There was a part of my brain that woke up and was like, ‘Hey, what am I doing to make the world a better place?’” she said. 

In response to this diverse classroom demographic, Wood spoke about the term “goal affordance.”

“In general, students from historically underserved backgrounds — so women and minoritized students — have a stronger ‘goal affordance.’ They want to feel like that what they’re doing is ultimately going to fulfill their goals, and of course, as humans, one of our goals tends to be that we want the world to be a better place,” Wood said. 

This focus in CS education is not exclusive to Cal Poly and Wood draws inspiration from other academics and universities, like Brown University, as many are now teaching about more socially conscious computing practices.

“[The issues that individuals experience using tech] really expose that tech is not neutral; it can be used to promote and enhance the systematic racism and biases that exist in our nation,” Wood said. “So I think there is that switch in some computing education to really look at how we are preparing our students.”

In terms of changing the status quo in computer science, Wood said the tides are changing, even here at Cal Poly.

“When I first came [to Cal Poly 17 years ago], the number of female students was 9% year after year,” Wood said. “We had to actively change and promote in the department — which really went through a process of strategically trying to say ‘yes,’ promoting women in computer science is important  — and so that’s where we went from 9% closer to like 22%.”

The future of this class is to be determined, but other projects are in the works: a proposal by Wood to make conscious efforts to improve diversity in CS and improving retention rates, a senior project from two students proposing a course about software engineering for nonprofits and professors collaborating on an intro class that includes social responsible computing. 

“[We’re starting] to open the question [of the ethics and implications of computing] and that’s happening. [It’s not just my class], it’s a part of a nationwide movement and hopefully it will then mean computing can be of interest in application to a broader audience,” Wood said. 

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