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How do we get black students in the picture and in computer majors? 


Kamau Bobb is senior director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech. In this column, Bobb cites the lack of students of color in STEM majors, a failure that he believes ought to be on everyone’s mind as Atlanta pursues Amazon’s second headquarters. 

He contends the plan to lure Amazon here must consider how Georgia can democratize computing so STEM opportunities are open to all students.  

Bobb is an engineer and science and technology policy scholar whose work focuses on the relationship between equity for students and communities of color in the STEM enterprise, large educational systems, and the social and structural conditions that influence contemporary American life.

By Kamau Bobb  

Atlanta has made the short list of cities for Amazon’s HQ2. At the heart of the proposition to Amazon and other tech companies is people. City officials assert that one of our most important assets is a steady stream of young people with elite technical skills. In this courtship, it is clear which people the city is planning its future around. High-end science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is a proxy for who is valuable and who is not.  

Strangely missing from the city’s courtship of Amazon and other tech companies is a plan to break the pattern of racial segregation in STEM education that determines who is valuable. It begs the question, who is included in the future of Atlanta?  

With this logic, Atlanta is facing a basic challenge. People with computing and STEM skills are valuable. The future is being planned around them. If students of color in Atlanta have the least access to rigorous computing and STEM education, they are the least valuable. The future is being planned without them. In the starkest terms, this is the challenge facing the city.  

Democratizing computing is an effort to bring rigorous computing skills to all students in Atlanta. Computational skills are emerging as the cornerstone of STEM education. Students’ computational abilities are fundamental to anything STEM related in higher education.

Parents of any school-age child in Atlanta can attest that the clamor for coding, computer science and STEM education is everywhere. Right or wrong, in the current economy they are the skills that determine a student’s value. Yet equal access to quality STEM education remains elusive.  

Georgia Tech is the engine of elite STEM education in Atlanta and one of the best in the country. Only 7 percent of the 2,200 undergraduate students in the College of Computing are black. As an elite computer science department, that proportion is among the nation’s best. As an indicator of who is valuable in the future of the city, it is ominous.  

This is a structural challenge. In Atlanta Public Schools, 80 percent of the juniors and seniors are black -- approximately 4,150 students. Only two high schools offer advanced placement computer science courses.

In the 2015-16 school year, of the 350 students of all races who took any STEM-related Advanced Placement exam, only 109 scored 3 or better. Only 21 took the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam.  

The masses of black students in Atlanta are not getting access to advanced computing and STEM education, the kind required to be valuable in an Amazonian Atlanta. This is happening at the same time that there is a demographic shift taking place. Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of black people in Atlanta decreased from 61 to 54 percent. During the same period, Atlanta experienced one of the fastest increases in the proportion of white people of any major metropolitan city in the country, from 31 to 38 percent. If this trend continues, the end of the logical argument to Amazon is clear. The future of black people in Atlanta is in jeopardy.  

Under these circumstances, democratizing computing is not just an effort to lure Amazon’s HQ2. It is necessary to redefine who will be valuable and accounted for in the future of Atlanta. It is a matter of justice.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.