The Computer Science Evangelist
As she prepares to leave her post at CSforALL, Ruthe Farmer outlines how the U.S. can build a more representative tech industry
Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black woman to run for a major party’s presidential nomination, famously once said, “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” When it comes to computer science, plenty of young women, students of color, and low-income youth have found there aren’t enough seats for them. But instead of giving them folding chairs, Ruthe Farmer wants to build a bigger table.
As Chief Evangelist at CSforALL, a non-profit dedicated to providing quality computer science education to every student in America, Farmer is intimately engaged with inviting the community to engage and actively encouraging populations marginalized by the industry to get involved in it. She has implemented national tech and engineering programs at Girl Scouts of the USA, ed strategy and K–12 programs at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and launched many national programs aimed at getting young women into tech. In 2013 she was named a White House Champion of Change for technology, and two years later served as the Obama administration's Senior Policy Advisor for Tech Inclusion leading President Obama's Computer Science for All initiative.
After leaving the White House at the end of Obama’s term, Farmer joined CSforALL, where she has continued and built on her work to create new advocates for computer science education, new opportunities for young people interested in technology, and generally expanding, evolving, and in some cases pushing to rebuild the infrastructure supporting K–12 CS education.
At the end of June, Farmer is leaving her post at CSforALL to focus her efforts on the Last Mile Education Fund, an organization she launched to invest in degree completion for striving low-income students during the last mile of their educational journey. “We talk a lot about race equity and gender equity, but we don't often talk about socioeconomic equity,” Farmer tells The Elective. “If you look at who has the social networks and the connections and the encouragement and the access to extracurriculars, all those things—those are really tied up in privilege in a big way. The impact of socio-economic status on achievement in computing is something we need to focus on much more than we are right now.”
Farmer spoke with The Elective recently about her career, the need to rethink the place of computer science in K–12 education, and how students can be tech evangelists for their classmates and schools.
Ruthe Farmer speaks at the 2018 CSforALL Summit on October 9, 2018.
What exactly is a Chief Evangelist?
In the Obama administration, my job was to leverage the convening power of the White House to say, “Hey, people need to step up on computer science.” Most of what I did there was getting stakeholder groups outside of the government to do things. When I joined CSforAll, I really wanted to do that same thing. And, frankly, I still had the halo of the Obama administration. So I came in and spoke to community leaders and policymakers on a local level, from that national perspective, and basically evangelized and spurred others to take action. Education is ultimately local, on the level of between a teacher and a student, and between a school and a family. Those are the folks that are going to carry the water forever. So I was evangelizing to get others to the table and make the table bigger.
That kind of work is necessary. Why is it particularly important right now when it comes to computer science?
Computer science—and engineering broadly—has been left out of K–12 education. We built K–12 education before the Industrial Revolution, and we have continued to iterate on that original curriculum at some level rather than giving it a real reboot, which it kind of needs. One big problem for computer science is that the presence of technology in schools confuses people into thinking kids are learning computing. It’s the conflation of ed tech with technology education. I've had conversations with school boards of major school districts where they say, "Oh, we spend 10 million a year on IT." You also spend 9 million a year on buses. Are all your kids learning to be CDL [commercial driver’s license] drivers? No. They're riding the bus. Using technology in the classroom to learn things is equivalent to riding the bus to and from school. It's not teaching you to drive the bus or build the bus.
If we look back in time to the 1980s when Apple and others were introducing PCs into the schools and computers became available, all you could do with a computer was program it. There wasn't much software available outside enterprise level tools. I remember at my school, we wrote little programs in Basic, and everything we did at that time was brand new. And then came educational technology and software. Now all the things are happening on the screen for you. To get a kid to the point where they've created something new, that's totally different, and looks comparable to what they see on their phone, that's a long slog.
You need pretty significant experience in computing to be able to build something that sophisticated. So we've pushed that “aha moment” out really far. We started out where everybody was like, "Oh, we're learning computer science." Then we started learning with computers. Now we've had to make a massive effort to reintroduce computer science in a meaningful way into the schools. Broadly speaking, all people need to have a foundational understanding of computation and what it's capable of.
What was your aha moment as a student with computers?
I actually don't have a background in computer science. I have never taken a computer science class. I wanted to be an architect. When I was in school, I really struggled with math because I had moved and changed schools a lot as a child. I think I went to six different first grades. So my math education had been really nonlinear and jumped all over the place, and I was just not very confident in math. So I decided somewhere in late high school to switch from architecture to communications because I was afraid of the math that I would have to do in architecture. I ended up studying communications and German at Lewis & Clark College, and while I was there I took a class in the rhetoric of women. In that course, I was learning about all these women I should have heard of long before my sophomore year of college, and I was really frustrated and annoyed that I had never heard of them. I gave the list of women, which included Ida Wells and Sojourner Truth and others, to my sister who was still in high school, and said, "Take this to our social studies teacher and ask him why you haven't learned about any of these women." And he said, "Well, we could do a section on presidential wives." This was the early '90s. So that was kind of my feminist and equity aha moment.
As a senior, I took physiology of nutrition and I was planning to take it pass/fail. My professor was Janis Lochner, and I walked up to her with my pass/fail slip right as she's saying to the whole class, "I don't let anyone take this class pass/fail. I know all you seniors have senioritis. But you can't do it." I ended up being one of the top students in that class. She pulled me aside and asked, "Have you considered medical school? You're really good at this." No one had ever said to me, ever, that I was good at anything STEM. Never. And it turned out I was actually quite good at it.
Ruthe Farmer with students from the Young Women's Leadership School during their 2016 Computer Science Education Week Hackathon.
How did that translate into you spending your adult life working with and evangelizing for computer science?
I joined the Girl Scouts’ program team in 2001, and we got a grant from Intel to do an engineering program for middle school girls. It was this perfect marriage of engineering, which desperately needs the minds of women, and my feminist leanings. It seemed like the smartest way to get more women to be contributing to the designed world, the world we all depend on and live in - and enables more women to be financially independent, to have jobs that pay them well and give them the freedom they need.
Over time, I worked for the Girl Scouts and then the National Center for Women & IT, and just homed in on this huge disconnect that the United States has, in that we are the only major Western nation with a large native-diverse population. Here in the United States, we have this really diverse population, and all the research shows and has proven for years that diverse teams are more innovative. The United States has a global competitive advantage in technology that we are not exploiting. We are leaving 75% of the team on the bench because we are not accessing the talent of women and people of color and people with disabilities. We're restricting our talent pool in technology to White, Asian and affluent people. That's just really foolish. If there was ever a time to incubate the home team, this is it.
You mentioned learning about women like Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth for the first time in college. There's a massive history of women and people of color in tech that has been marginalized, papered over, or just ignored. How important is restoring that legacy to the conversation about computer science to getting that 75% of the team off the bench?
I think that role models and representation really matter, and so does being honest and truthful about the true foundations and history of the field. One organization that's been doing that well is the National Center for Women & IT, which has, for some years, done a pioneers podcast series in which they interview women, many of whom are getting on in years, about the early foundations of computing. They are recording those stories before it's too late. There are multiple ways that women weren’t just forgotten, but actively erased, and there are all these examples across history where women have been major contributors but have not been considered contributors because they were classified as supporters of their male colleagues.
One thing I'm hopeful for is the day when we no longer say, "Look, a Black engineer did something! Look, a woman engineer did something!" I really want us to just talk about the engineers—we can tell by the photos and by their names that these are women or people of color. Or we should turn it around and say, "Look, a White engineer man did something!" You're a doctor, you're an engineer, you're a software developer—not a woman software developer. Until we're at a place where it is normal and unremarkable that a girl takes AP Computer Science in her high school—when we get to that place where it's no longer necessary to have campaigns and programs targeted—that's when we’ll know that we've won.
How does that happen? It feels like there are two arguments: one for playing this multi-year long game and another where if we could just find the silver bullet we’ll solve the problem.
Do you remember Richard Scarry's book Busytown? They went back and looked at that and said, "Wow, all the people in professional jobs are men, all the cleaners are women, all the garbage collectors have brown skin. We need to update this." The same is happening with Dr. Seuss and other media. We did an exercise once at the National Center for Women & IT. We asked the staff the following question: “If you could do anything to solve the gender equity issue in tech, no limits, what would you do?” I said I would take a group of 3-year-olds and surround them with the right media messages, parental messages, and school messages throughout their lives, and block out everything else. What would be the outcome? One thing that’s promising is changing narratives in television and media broadly and things that are happening online. The ability to have so many more creators of content and stories out there is really helpful.
Something that I think is really interesting is what I call the Doc McStuffins effect. Doc McStuffins is a pre-school-level cartoon about a little girl who play-acts as a doctor. The show features a Black family where the dad stays home and the mom is a doctor. I’ve seen surveys recently where, if you ask a 7-year-old to draw a doctor, the percentage of the time they draw a woman is really low. But if you talk to a 3-year-old, it was about 80% of the time. People said, "Oh, no, we're introducing gender disparity." I said "No, those little ones are watching Doc McStuffins, and the 7-year-olds hadn't." We can rapidly change viewpoints through looking at the media messages that are being given.
I'm looking forward to the day when the narratives aren't, "It's so hard. I'm a woman in STEM. I'm struggling." Instead we’ll just be telling stories about what it's like to work as a software engineer. A really good view of that, I think, is Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, where she's not only a software engineer but she's the boss. I don't think I've seen a single storyline in that show that was about her being deficient as a woman technologist. That kind of representation and narrative can have broad impacts.
Modern Figures podcast co-hosts Dr. Kyla McMullen (left) and Dr. Jeremy Magruder Waisome at the 2019 NCWIT Summit. "I do think it’s important for people to understand that computer science is something that’s accessible to everyone," Dr. Waisome said.
Students who are in middle school and high school have likely grown up with and in the kinds of media environments that need changing, and formed opinions of who is—or can be—a computer scientist or engineer. What needs to happen—student to student, but also teacher to student—to help kids interested in computer science understand that they belong?
Counselors for Computing is doing great things by helping school counselors talk about computing to students. Another critical piece of it is preparing teachers to take an abundance viewpoint to who might be interested. Teacher and educator bias has already been shown to have an impact. In Jane Margolis' book Stuck in the Shallow End, she studied STEM magnet schools in L.A. public schools where Black and Latino students still weren't taking computer science. It was because teachers and counselors were preemptively labeling students, saying, "Well, this is the tech kid. He's always on his device, he's always talking about the games he likes. But this kid isn't." That's because the second kid doesn't even own a device and doesn't have parents taking her to Maker Faire on the weekends. Educators are misinterpreting access and opportunity as ability and interest.
I started scaling up Aspirations in Computing in 2009, which is a program to identify and recognize girls who are aspiring in computing at the high school level. That program now has 20,000 young women in it and over 70% actually end up majoring in computer science or engineering. When I was building it, I contacted everyone I could across the country saying, "Have your girls apply for this opportunity!" I got an email from one teacher who wrote, "I don't have any girls I'd recommend for this, but I have this boy who is amazing. He does robots and Java. Do you have an award for him?" I thought, "Did you write to a national women's organization and ask us for an award for a boy?" Of course, I didn't say that. What I did say was, "Boys are not underrepresented in technology, girls are. I'd really appreciate it if you could just look at your students to see if there are some girls who might be interested." His response was, "Well, there are two girls who are always trying to show me the animations they make." He literally said, "trying to show me." He was blind to the aspirations of those girls.
For us to fix this, we need to deal with educator messaging and bias. The percentage of teachers who are women is very high. The percentage of computer science teachers who are women is much, much lower.
How does that change? This feels like a systems adjustment that will take a while to realize.
We need to look at what systems we can leverage. There are a lot of people who say, "Oh, let's just do something separate. The system is broken." The system is there, it's not going away, and it's where all kids exist and we need to work with it. That's one reason the National Science Foundation put so many resources into creating AP Computer Science Principles. AP courses are what college-bound students do. It's what colleges recognize as signs of merit. There are all these different pieces of the puzzle, which is why AP Computer Science Principles needed to exist.
The latest thing I'm working on is called CSforEd. All these years the community has been running at in-service teacher preparation. That means taking a teacher who's already working—maybe in math or physics—and provide training in computer science. But not much work has been done at the college of education level. And there wasn’t an incentive to do anything because this training wasn't part of teacher training standards and there weren't any licenses yet. It's a simple market problem. Now we have standards and we're starting to have certifications and licensure available, but only a fraction of states have an institution that a teacher can go to to get that certification. So we're working on this program to invest in capacity within the colleges of ed by endowing the computer science faculty.
Almost all of the faculty dedicated to computer science education are in colleges of computer science, not colleges that prepare teachers. That's a long-term play. We need to resource colleges of education to integrate computing, so that every new teacher who graduates at every grade level has a foundational understanding of how to teach computing. We also need to create a population of PhDs in computer science to teach in the 2,000 colleges of ed that prepare teachers.
These are not silver bullets—these are long-term systems plays. And they’re not as sexy as saying, "These kids went to a robotics camp" or "All these teachers got trained." They are permanent changes at a systems level. And that's the place where I like to play, where CSforALL likes to play, in looking at and filling in the gaps in the ecosystem.
We hear a lot about the computer science pipeline, and hearing you talk about this it's clear that there are multiple pipelines: There's the pipeline to turn a student into a professional. But there's also this pipeline of simply creating the infrastructure for teaching it.
Yes, we also need to create awareness among administrators and school districts. Teachers are not, at an individual level, the unit of change. Educating a teacher to teach a course is important, but that teacher can't put a course on the schedule and that teacher doesn't enroll kids in the course. Counselors do that. So you need school-wide buy-in, and you need administrators on board.
Early in the computer science education movement, there was a push to make it count as a math or science or foreign language in some places. Most math educators didn’t want it to count as a math credit because they didn't want kids to take less math. They kind of put their defenses up. We couldn’t afford to be adversaries with 100,000 math teachers, so through a number of partners, we invited them to the White House and I said, "You could be the saviors here. You've got this massive network. This is so important. You'll be part of the team that saves the day."
I had an epiphany when I realized the percentage of principals and superintendents who started out as computer science teachers is close to zero. The percentage of those who were math teachers is pretty high. Also, everybody understands math outcomes. We really couldn't afford to have the math people as our adversaries, and we don't want to be in competition with other STEM disciplines in any way. They are all complementary.
How can a student who is a young woman or person of color or from a low-income background or who is differently-abled and doing computer science be evangelists for this with their friends and classmates?
They can actually be evangelists for their schools. Some students have successfully lobbied their schools to add AP Computer Science courses. Students can bring about change. One way a student can show demand for a course is to recruit friends to take it with them. The more students who take a course, the more resources the school is going to put towards that course.
Lots of young people have been starting clubs and organizations. There's an organization called ProjectCSGIRLS that was launched by a young woman in Virginia that is serving about 7,000 students per year at the middle school level. There's Everybody Code Now!, also started by a young woman, that is operating in seven states. There's Catwalk Coding, launched by a young woman as her Girl Scout Gold Award project, where she incorporates wearable electronics and coding to get girls in fashion interested in technology. There are multiple ways students can serve as peer evangelists.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.