What role do mentors play in sparking and sustaining student interest in computer science as a field of study? And what role can parents take to help students hone computer science skills to secure the jobs of the future, even if they don't have tech industry experience themselves? Victor Reinoso, global director of Amazon Future Engineer, and Stephanie Marken, Gallup's executive director of education research, join the podcast to discuss Amazon's education initiative.
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Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:07
I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we explore the "how" and "why" behind Amazon's focus on engineering talent for the future. Victor Reinoso is the global director of Amazon's Future Engineer Initiative. Stephanie Marken is executive director of education research at Gallup. Folks, welcome to the podcast.
Stephanie Marken 00:26
Thanks for having us.
Victor Reinoso 00:27
Great to be here with you.
Mohamed Younis 00:28
Victor, I thought I'd just start by asking you the "why" behind this. Why did Amazon want to study students' perceptions of interest and access to computer science? Why did you guys want to focus on that?
Victor Reinoso 00:40
Well, Amazon Future Engineer is Amazon's global philanthropic childhood-to-career computer science education program. And we aim to inspire and educate millions of students globally, including hundreds of thousands here in the U.S. each year, with the goal to build life-changing skills that will leverage computer science and coding. And we commissioned the study because many students across the U.S., especially those from underserved and historically underrepresented communities, are interested in computer science but lack access to classes in school and exposure to the tech sector more broadly.
Victor Reinoso 01:22
And we, we wanted to understand, how real is that gap? Can we quantify it? How, how different is it, when you look across race, gender, location and socioeconomic status? Are there important differences that can help inform efforts like Amazon Future Engineer? The bottom line is, you know, we're thinking really long term about this, and we do see coding as the language of the future. And so as we look long term, we wanted to have, be grounded in a data-driven understanding of the circumstances before us, if you will.
Mohamed Younis 02:02
Stephanie, what were some of the key findings of this research? I know you've tackled this subject from so many different angles over the years. What surprised you about this work?
Stephanie Marken 02:12
I would say among the most important findings of the research that we conducted with the Amazon Future Engineer team was this issue of interest in computer science education and being particularly high among students nationally. We found the majority of students for whom we interviewed reported they were interested in pursuing or learning more about the topic of computer science education. And yet we find participation in computer science courses really lags that of interest. So while the majority of students nationally report they're interested in learning more about computer science, only about half of students nationally report actually having the opportunity to take a computer science course. And that gap between interest and participation is particularly pronounced for underserved students. So we find students living in rural areas throughout the U.S., students coming from lower-income households, for example, are far less likely than their peers nationally to report they've actually had the opportunity to take a computer science course. So really the research underscored the significant inequities that continue to exist, despite a lot of effort nationally to scale computer science education opportunities to more students.
Mohamed Younis 03:13
One of the really interesting topics that you covered in this work, for me, Stephanie, was the role of having a role model. What were some of the findings around mentorship and role models, and what are some of the challenges that we see in this area?
Stephanie Marken 03:27
Yeah, role models are so critical to encouraging students -- not just to take computer science course, but really to pursue it as a long-term career pathway. And what we know about role models is they do a few things for students. They can act as a mirror and a window -- a mirror, meaning they show an individual student what a career in technology or computer science can look like; but a window, because they expand students' understanding of what computer science is. Because many students just think computer science is coding or programming a computer program. In reality, we know that computer science education opens so many pathways for students, and there are so many different applications. And a role model can really help students understand that, especially if they don't have a lot of familiarity with the topic before in their, in their school life or also in their personal life, in their network outside of school. What we found is that role models were incredibly important. They had a huge impact on students' desire to pursue computer science long term. We found that students were more than 10 times as likely -- I'm going to repeat that -- we found that students were more than 10 times as likely to report they were going to pursue a computer science career if they had a role model in computer science.
Stephanie Marken 04:31
So 73% of students who strongly agreed they had a role model in computer science also reported they plan to pursue that as a career pathway, compared with just 7% of students who didn't have such a role model. So it has a huge impact. And we found the impact of that role model was equal across all different demographic groups. So there was equity in the impact of role models. Unfortunately, there wasn't equity in access to role models. So we found, for example, that only about half of students nationally reported they actually had a role model in computer science, but that rate was much lower among Black students as well as young girls. The greatest gap, though, existed among students who lived in rural areas as compared with students who lived in urban areas. So when we look at that, access to role models is a huge challenge nationally. And that's why I'm really excited about some of what Amazon is doing in actually introducing students to Amazonians, because I think that provides a really important access point for students to actually meet and interact with a potential role model -- not just in current time, but somebody who they could make a long-term connection with throughout their career.
Mohamed Younis 05:32
So Victor, I'm sure a lot of folks listening, like me, are around young people, have kids, nieces, nephews. We know that computer science and all of this is really the future but, like me, I don't have any background in any of this stuff. So this role model thing is a huge, huge challenge, I'm sure, across the board. What are you all doing to help kind of link role models with students that would be interested in through Amazon Future Engineer?
Victor Reinoso 06:00
We weren't surprised by the finding on role models, because for the last few years, the top request we've been getting from educators has been, Can you help students understand what might be possible in a career at a place like Amazon or, or Amazon Web Services? And so that was our top educator request, which was why we created the program, "Meet an Amazonian," so that we could connect students with a diverse group of role models to bring real-world tech professionals into classrooms and to help bring the industry to life. And so, to your point, this can be, there can be a gap in people's understanding of what, what it means to work in tech or what a company like Amazon is like. And Meet an Amazonian helps narrow that gap. And, and it's really, it's available to everyone.
Victor Reinoso 06:57
And so, folks can go to our website -- amazonfutureengineer.com -- and sign up for a virtual FC tour, which is one of the key components of Meet an Amazonian. And it's also, at our website, teachers can, teachers can sign up for class chats, which is the second principal component of Meet an Amazonian and is a live virtual career talk, where a volunteer Amazon employee will meet with a class and share their own personal experience -- and, in doing so, I think, humanize it.
Victor Reinoso 07:35
We have this notion that I've got to be super focused from day one, and there's a straight line to a tech career. And one of the things that class chats does is it demystifies that and it kind of, or debunks the assumptions about a straight line and shows how people can follow varied paths to get there. And since launching the Meet an Amazonian experiences in April, we've reached more than 2,000 U.S. Title I-eligible schools and over 150,000 students. And we're confident we'll reach at least 3,000 Title I schools by year end.
Mohamed Younis 08:17
That's a huge, huge number of young people to have an impact on. So Stephanie, I know you spent a lot of your time really studying education and how students, educators, parents really experience the challenges and benefits of just education at large. What role can parents take in students' education in computer science specifically, and particularly if they don't necessarily have a lot of experience in the field themselves?
Stephanie Marken 08:42
The parents have a huge role to play in encouraging students to pursue computer science -- not just in the short term, in terms of taking one course, but really in envisioning what a career in computer science can look like for their student. They often act as some of the role models that we've been talking about here today and can really influence the students' desire to pursue computer science long term. I think one of the challenges that exist -- there are two real challenges that I see in talking to parents and students and in observations we've done through other research too, in addition to our research with the Amazon Future Engineer program. The first is which, of which is we already talked about: A lot of parents don't even know what a computer science education looks like or what a career in computer science is, right. They probably didn't experience some of that in their own curriculum and K-12 experience. And so they lack a real understanding of what computer science can look like in real time -- that it's not just coding computers, for example; it's programming robots. And there's so many applications possible within the curriculum that they won't fully appreciate if they haven't experienced it themselves.
Stephanie Marken 09:44
There's, there's a lot that students and teachers and parents have to do together to really move the needle in access to computer science education. But we have to do a better job of helping parents understand what computer science education is, and what it can mean for their student. We still, unfortunately too, see biases in how parents think about computer science education for their students. So our research really uncovered a significant gap in interest in computer science among young girls. That's consistent with historic research that Gallup has conducted and that others have conducted on this issue of interest and participation in computer science, where we found young girls often report they're less interested in the topic than young boys.
Stephanie Marken 10:22
But what we also find in some of the other research that Gallup conducted with Google is that, unfortunately, a lot of parents of young girls are less likely than parents of young boys to report they think computer science education is important for their student and that a computer science career makes sense for their student. So we still have some important subconscious biases that even exist among parents that could influence their desire to nudge their students towards a computer science course and, ultimately, a computer science career. So we have to do more to inform parents -- make them understand what computer science is; the benefits of a computer science career, which are really significant when we think about income and earnings and social mobility -- so that they are nudging their students to take those first courses and actually pursue a long-term career in computer science education
Mohamed Younis 11:09
Victor, so obviously from a social development perspective, from a community perspective, all of this is really critical. But from a business perspective, why would Amazon be interested in really trying to fill these, these demographic gaps in young people's perceptions of and access, really, to careers in computer science across the country?
Victor Reinoso 11:30
So as a company, Amazon is, is constantly working to be customer-obsessed. And when we look at the range of the customers we serve, there's a gap there in terms of our understanding of customers, if you just look at the representation of employees in tech broadly -- not, not just at Amazon but within the tech industry as a whole. And so closing that gap is going to help us be a better company. It's all, it's going to help us develop better products; It's going to help us better understand customers if we've got a diverse workforce.
Victor Reinoso 12:12
And so when we look at that gap between interest and access to computer science education among students today, we see a huge missed opportunity for the nation's economy as U.S. employers are struggling to fill positions in roles that require skills or a background in computer science. And from a, from a, again, economic perspective, there's, that's a lot of lost wages, if you will, or wages being left on the table by students that come into the workforce without those skills. According to the latest federal stats, people in computer science or information roles are, are likely to make more than two times the median wage of all other occupations. And so if we can get more people into these high-wage occupations, we help the economy broadly; we help the tech industry as a whole; and companies that are focused in tech like Amazon are able to generate stronger products. So I think it's a win-win across the board.
Stephanie Marken 13:24
That issue of pipeline is such an important one, right, because the pipeline is challenged in two ways. One, it lacks robustness. We just don't have enough people with a background in computer science to fill the jobs that employers report they need. But it's also lacking diversity. And we saw this so much in the research that we did with Amazon, where we found the majority of students nationally reported that there was at least one course available within their school on the topic of computer science. Unfortunately, it wasn't equitably available. We found that students who lived in underserved communities, particularly rural students, were far less likely than their peers to report that there was a course currently available within their school on the topic of computer science education.
Stephanie Marken 14:02
So while interest was consistent across all students in which we interviewed, we found interest was very high among students who were traditionally underserved -- living in lower-income households or living in rural communities. We found that the availability of computer science courses unfortunately was not there for students who are living in rural communities specifically. And even when we went into urban communities, where we found computer science courses were more available at the school or the district level, we still found that Black and Latinx students were less likely than their peers to report those courses were available in their particular schools. So we still have huge inequities within a computer science access that we have to address if we're really going to improve the robustness, but also the diversity of the pipeline.
Victor Reinoso 14:44
I think one of the things that happens is, right, there are places that see themselves as being tech communities, either because they've got tech companies that are, that serve as employers in their region, or there may be communities that, you know, are -- to the -- Stephanie's mention about the rural communities, don't have a lot of tech companies in the area. And so they feel this disconnect in terms of why would we offer tech-focused courses? But I think the reality is that whatever your economy consists of, whatever job you aspire to hold someday, whatever problem you're trying to solve -- whether it's a local community problem in a rural setting or in an urban setting -- whatever societal issue you, you want to improve on or have an impact on, computer science thinking, computer science skills are going to help you have a larger impact.
Victor Reinoso 15:46
And so, I think that's part of that kind of imagination shift that we, we think needs to happen on the parent side. It needs to happen on the school educator, leader side. And, and even on the community side, in terms of, are we a tech community or not? So we hope that, that, that more communities will see that there's value in this and begin offering access to courses, as Stephanie said.
Mohamed Younis 16:13
Victor, for those communities that really don't have the resources to set up a whole computer science curricula for their students, are you all working with teachers, specifically, to kind of help them know how to lay just the foundational inquisitiveness of the computer science as an opportunity for students? How are you all working with teachers, specifically?
Victor Reinoso 16:35
Yeah, so we, so our programs are all free, and it is designed to help teachers, more, help more teachers reach students. And so we offer high-quality curriculum, professional development and other benefits to support teachers. We work through partners, but a lot of these activities are accessible virtually or online. So you don't have to have somebody, if you will, right in your backyard in order for teachers to be able to avail themselves of the opportunities. And we work primarily with, well, we work across all the grades, so elementary, middle and high school. And, you know, we see each of those as critical stages in that childhood-to-career approach.
Victor Reinoso 17:30
And at the early years, it's, we provide support to teachers and, and online resources they can use in their class, in their classrooms to kind of integrate key concepts into the general education program that you might find in an elementary school. And then, as you get to middle and high school, we provide access to curriculum that can be used for stand-alone courses at the middle school level and at the high school, and it's the, kind of the marquee courses are the AP computer science courses. But we've also got a number of, of, of resources that teachers can use outside of a formal computer science curriculum. As an example, we have a partnership with Georgia Tech, and they have a program called EarSketch, which teaches kids to, to remix music, using code. And we've got another --
Mohamed Younis 18:28
Victor Reinoso 18:30
Yeah, it's a lot of fun, and it's quite extraordinary. The remixes themselves -- I mean, the music aside; I mean, the music just as the anchor -- is a way to again motivate kids and see that coding is, intersects with everything. It's not just whatever, whatever boring thing you think coding is. You actually, you use it in the music industry; you use it in the fashion industry. We've got a partnership where kids can design sneakers, so there's a sneaker app that we work with, and we've got a cyber robotics challenge. And so these things can be dropped into a general curriculum. The, our EarSketch program, the -- we call it "Your voice is power" -- remixing music has been used by music teachers. The sneaker app has been used by art teachers. And so, there's lots of creative ways that folks can use these resources.
Mohamed Younis 19:31
It's so fascinating to just, you know, really contemplate how interdisciplinary this field is. Like computer science, as you mentioned, Victor, it's in every aspect of our life today. And to have, to be able to connect it to something students are already passionate about, I think, is super powerful. Stephanie, you've done a lot of research on education, but you're also somebody who is in a field that is predominantly male dominant. You're a methodologist, and there aren't a lot of amazing female methodologists. There aren't enough out there. We have a lot of them at Gallup. But tell me about, kind of on a personal level, as you were looking through these data, what were some of the things you were reflecting on?
Stephanie Marken 20:11
Yeah, I think we have to do more to make more role models available to students but also make sure those role models are diverse in nature. Right, diverse on the basis of gender, diverse on the basis of race/ethnicity. When you come from different backgrounds, you have different perspectives. And we need that in computer science because we know that these individuals are going to be making products and technologies that consumers use. And consumers are diverse in nature. So the individuals that are creators of those products have to be diverse too, because those products will have a greater impact on individuals; they'll be more successful; and they'll be more widely used. So there's so much we have to do on the issue of gender diversity in particular within this field.
Stephanie Marken 20:51
What we've seen historically in pop culture is that when you watch a TV show or when you watch a movie, the scientist is usually a straight white man in a lab coat. And we have to do more to diversify the picture of what a computer scientist is and what a scientist is in general, if we are to sell students on this as a long-term career. They have to be able to see themselves in that career and see themselves as that individual and that persona. So we have a lot of work to do in pop culture. Some of this has already begun. You'll notice, too, often when you're watching movies or videos now, you see a lot more diversity in scientists who are presented on shows around crime and lab individuals who are working in that lab. They look a little different than they used to. But I think we have a lot of work to be done on the issue of pop culture and how it presents scientists to young students, because they're taking cues very early on, on what scientists, on what a computer scientist is, and that's really being embedded in their decision-making and whether or not to take that first computer science course.
Stephanie Marken 21:52
And that issue of access early on is so important. We have to get the students early on in their elementary and middle school years, because what we know is if they get all the way to the postsecondary level and they've never taken a computer science course, they're less likely to do so -- in part because they won't feel prepared to do so and prepared for that curriculum, but also because they won't even know what a computer science course might feel or look like or what they might learn from it. So we have to get to students really early on in their academic journey, in order to make sure they're actually specializing and majoring in computer science long term at the postsecondary level.
Mohamed Younis 22:25
That's Stephanie Marken from Gallup and Victor Reinoso from Amazon. Thank you both for being with us.
Stephanie Marken 22:31
Thank you for having us.
Victor Reinoso 22:32
Mohamed Younis 22:41
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for The Gallup Podcast wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to news.gallup.com, or follow us on twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.