White Boys are Boring: Demographic Impacts on Who We Teach

March 20, 2010 at 12:09 pm 9 comments

Georgia Tech is going through a strategic planning activity, where education is one of the focii. The goal is bold: To identify what Georgia Tech will and should be in twenty-five years.  That’s a long time!  To inform the discussion on education, we held “Days of Engagement” where students told us where Georgia Tech should be in 25 years and how they thought students should be taught then.

In discussions about the implications for the strategic plan for us in the School of Interactive Computing, I realized what was wrong with this picture.  Georgia Tech is 74% male, and 66% white (86% White + Asian) — with the percentages of being white and male much higher in STEM fields.  These aren’t at all like the kids we’re going to have 25 years.

By 2050, Whites are expected to be a minority in the United States. The percentage of women in the United States is risingTime predicts that the changing demographics of the United States are going to lead to dramatic changes over the next 10 years.  Certainly, these changes are going to impact who we teach and how we teach over the next 25 years.  We know that race matters when teaching, and that successful models teach differently for different cultural value systems.

Why ask a bunch of mostly white boys what they want in the future of education, when it won’t be students like them we’re educating?  White males are not the growth market for computing education, or STEM education more broadly.  In market-speak, white boys are boring.  We need to figure out different models for a different group of students.  We have to figure out how to broaden participation in computing, because the alternative is nobody in computing.  Demographically, white males are going away.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tucker Balch  |  March 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    I’m curious about the attitudes of minorities in college. Are they more like white guys in college or more like their minority brethren who didn’t pursue a degree? Maybe white guys have the attitudes they have because they went to college (as opposed to being white).

    My hypothesis is that all people who pursue post-secondary education have shared values and attitudes. So the demographic to poll for the future are those in college (or beyond), regardless of color or sex.

    Again, just an hypothesis.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  March 20, 2010 at 1:03 pm

      It’s an interesting question, Tucker. Will socioeconomic status of our students change over the next 25 years, and will that be the greater determinant of values than ethnicity or gender?

  • 3. Gary Litvin  |  March 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    “We know that race matters when teaching…” Well, maybe it shoudn’t! I think by 2050 the idea of teaching “differently for different cultural value systems” might seem preposterous. I certainly hope so. If you need to make a choice, change the cultural value systems, not the teaching model. “By 2050, Whites are expected to be a minority in the United States.” I hope by 2050 the idea of dividing people by race will finally go away. “White males are not the growth market for computing education”? I hope the idea that your students and potential students are a market will go away, too.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  March 20, 2010 at 6:20 pm

      It would be nice if race didn’t matter, Gary, and if all race (culture, gender) differences were reduced by 2050. The data we have suggests that students do have different values and attitudes. Those are unlikely to change in 25-40 years. Consider where we are in terms of race relations in the United States, and consider how many years since Civil Rights movement.

      It’s important for us to realize that we don’t teach now in a value-less, race/ethnicity-independent manner. As Carl Wieman said, our first goal in teaching is to motivate the student. Those motivations differ based on several variables, including race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and so on. The choices we make in assignments and examples make assumptions about the demographics of our students.

  • 5. Erik Engbrecht  |  March 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    If the demographics of GT in general and STEM in particular are already very different from those of the general population, why are you so confident that changes in the demographics of the general population are going to impact the demographics of GT and STEM?

    Hasn’t there been more female students attending college for a while now, yet CS has seen declining female enrollment?

    What if by ignoring your “present customers” in favor of the “larger market” of women and minorities you alienate the ones you have and fail to attract new ones in sufficient numbers?

    I think many businesses have been crushed by this thinking that potential customers are more important than existing ones.

    Let’s say a young black woman is talking to a slightly older white male who is in CS (or employed in engineering, for that matter), and he conveys the feeling that his school (or employer) really doesn’t care about him, because he’s the wrong demographic. Is she going to think “Wow, I should study/work there, because I’m the right demographic!” or is she going to think “Gee, I don’t want to study/work in such an uncaring environment.”

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  March 20, 2010 at 6:25 pm

      It’s a great point, Erik — maybe Georgia Tech will continue to be mostly rich, White/Asian, and male. If so, that means that we’ll be even more marginalized, and we won’t be serving our role in educating the population of Georgia.

      It’s also a good point that we can’t ignore who we have now in favor of whom we expect one day. However, as Alan has pointed out previously in comments here, it takes a long time for a teacher to get established and successful at a new approach. It’s clear that we don’t really know how to broaden participation in computing now. We don’t know how to reach that new student audience we’re expecting. We need several iterations to develop and try new approaches. It may take us 25 years to get it right.

      • 7. Erik Engbrecht  |  March 20, 2010 at 7:48 pm

        I would hardly call GT a marginal institution. But I suppose I’m using different measures than you…

        Has anyone looked at the comparative efficacies of race/gender neutral programs to increase participation versus ones targeted at specific races or at women?

        My feeling (that’s feeling, as in I have no evidence) is that more neutral efforts would add more successful students to the roster than the targeted ones, including at least as many in the current target demographics, but it wouldn’t create as much progress towards the target race/gender distribution.

        There’s so much that could be improved about CS education, it seems to me that zooming in on race/gender distribution issues is highly premature.

  • 8. Kurt L.  |  March 21, 2010 at 1:09 am

    Although GT’s student body is currently mostly white and male, it’s also the leading educator of African American engineers in the United States. So relative to other universities in the country, we (GT) are already doing pretty well. I think the goal is to continue this success and make even better progress.

    I assume Mark’s blog post contains at least a bit of hyperbole. We can — and should — give attention to both majority and minority groups when it comes to broadening participation in STEM, now and in the future. The demographics those labels represent will change over time, but every group is important.

    Also, I’m wondering if the statisticians are predicting a decrease in white American births, or simply an increase in the proportion of non-white American births. If the latter, then white men aren’t “going away;” rather, we’ll have just as many of them to educate, plus even more non-whites.

  • […] 22, 2010 Erik asked a great question in a comment to the “White Boys are Boring” post (a post which was clearly accompanied by a healthy serving of hyperbole, as Kurt pointed out): Has […]


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