You Can’t Just Throw a Computer at the Problem

Last week, at a forum discussion with a former newspaper editor, a science writer asked what could be done to encourage more minorities and women to cover science and technology. Based on this week’s readings, especially Tyrone Taborn’s “Separating race from Technology: finding tomorrow’s IT progress in the past,”  the solution lies in early exposure to STEM role models and encouraging students in math and science. Finding these role models requires deep digging on behalf of students, or guidance from a teacher or mentor — students won’t easily find these role models in textbooks and the media. Furthermore, Taborn states that access to the internet and computers is hardly closing the digital divide, despite the increase of minority youth online.

In his essay, Taborn discredits the myth that students of color dislike math and science, stating “…there are studies that find more minority students rate math as their favorite subject than do their white counterparts” (Taborn, 2008, 39). He goes on to say that as students advance in their education, a lack of visible role models in these fields, both today and historically, discourages students from pursuing careers in science and tech. Taborn gives the example of Edson de Castro, a Hispanic engineer who led the team that designed the PDP-8 mini computer at Digital Equipment Corporation and went on to co-found the company Data General. But “…De Castro is largely overlooked by mainstream histories of technology development,” Taborn says, and in Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, de Castro is “expunged” (43-44).

Taborn goes on to list more recent leaders who could serve as role models to students of color. Similarly, in her research on the effect of violence on African American patent development, Lisa Cook includes a list of African America inventors. Apart from George Washington Carver, all these names were unfamiliar. With new textbooks downplaying segregation (along with other questionable facts), it seems unlikely that de Castro or Dr. Aileen Van-Nguyen’s innovations in insecticides will be incorporated into school curricula.

Of course, students can discover this information for themselves online, but “just because teens are comfortable using social media to hang out does not mean that they’re fluent in or with technology.” (Boyd, 36). Having access to a computer or the Internet does not guarantee students will use them for educational purposes. Even if they do search for information, they may not develop the analytical skills to discern between a credible site and a cloaked site. Filling classrooms with computers is only useful if it also comes with technological training for teachers that includes ways to incorporate the hardware and online resources into lessons; Taborn argues that this is not happening: “Access to the Internet opened the door to an explosion of information services and Web sites, but it did not inevitably mean that students of color or their teachers were able to turn that information into useful and practical knowledge, apply new analytical skills, or make successful inroads in the digital economy.” (53)

This problem exists beyond the American classroom and brings to mind the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project. This non-profit organization aimed to bring sturdy laptops to “the world’s poorest students” (OLPC 2008). Here is one of their videos that explains their mission:

Though the project brought computers to students around the world, it seems to have met with little success. Proving Taborn’s point about needing more than hardware to improve education reported little to no improvement was seen in reading and math skills of OLPC laptop recipients in Uruguay and other countries. Furthermore, in March of this year, OLPC announced that it was closing.

If all these computers placed in classrooms came with a digital mentor like Judy Baca, the “artivist” presented by Sandoval and Latorre, greater progress might be achieved in closing the digital divide. Though initially hesitant, Baca eventually embraced technology and used it facilitate creating her murals. She uses it as a teaching tool both at the university level and in her work with LA youth, allowing her students to both develop technical skills and their skills at navigating social and racial differences. At the end of their essay, Sandoval and Latorre suggest that Baca’s methods be incorporated into the curriculum of public school systems. If done correctly, this could actually start closing the digital divide and benefit both students and their teachers, for, as the authors propose, “digital technology can foster transgenerational thinking, thus undermining clear distinctions between “youth” and “parent” cultures. As such, digital technology can effectively “age” youth while simultaneously “youthifying” older generations, thus allowing for more meaningful dialogues across different age groups.” (85)

To encourage minority students and women interested in science and technology to pursue these subjects, Taborn suggests they need to see role models and mentors in the field, as well as reflections of themselves in history and the media. This means more Judy Bacas connecting the past to the present, steering students to technological resources beyond social media sites, and developing their analytical skills. His theory applies to other fields, as well — seeing the success of people of color can only serve to inspire students. Until those successes are made easily available to students though, it’s a matter of knowing where to look for that information.

Questions for in-class discussion:

1. The activity from the first day of class in which we tried to name prominent figures in technology from different minority groups resonated with me. As mentioned in my response, I can’t recall learning about an African American innovator beyond George Washington Carver. What minority and women innovators did your education expose you to, or did you use the internet to educate yourself?

2. Are there role models that inspired you to pursue your field of study? If not in school, where did you learn about them?

3. On a different thread, in her essay, Dara Byrne says that she saw little organizing around important issues online community members thought were important in their lives offline (IRL). Do you think this has changed with Twitter and newer social media?


boyd, danah. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cook, Lisa D. 2014. “Violence and Economic Activity: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870–1940.” Journal of Economic Growth 19, no. 2: 221–57.

“Is This the Nail in the One Laptop Per Child Coffin?” 2014. Humanosphere. Accessed October 5.

OLPC. 2008. “OLPC’s mission is to empower the world’s poorest children through education.” Accessed October 5, 2014.

OLPC Mission, Part 1: Principles and Child Empowerment. 2008.

Sandoval, Chela and Guisela Latorre. 2008. “Chicana/o Artivism: Judy Baca’s Digital Work with Youth of Color.” In Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Anna Everett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 81-108.

Taborn, Tyrone D. 2008. “Separating race from technology : finding tomorrow’s IT progress in the past.” InLearning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Anna Everett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.39-59.

Vota, Wayan. 2014. “Goodbye One Laptop Per Child.” OLPC News, March 11.

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