Representing The Diversity Of Computer Science

A few years ago I redeveloped the slides I use for CIS3750 – a third year software design course that is required for all students in the Bachelor of Computing program. As part of that process, I used a Google Slides template called Jachimo and office characters by Alekksall at Freepik.com because the slides looked more like the pages of a comic book, the characters fit the theme, and who doesn’t want to have a little fun while they are learning? It was a time consuming process and I was incredibly pleased with the results. Until I noticed something.

After pulling together the slide decks and sitting back to congratulate myself on a job well done, I began flipping through the slides to take in the big picture while celebrating the completion of the project. As I was doing this, I began to realize that something wasn’t right – but I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what that was. And while it wasn’t an immediate realization, I eventually saw my mistake. I had failed to pay attention to the characters I selected for my slides.

They were all characters of men, and they were all white.

During the time that I was finishing up the slides, I had also begun planning the content for a free-to-students course manual that would cover all class materials as well as all of the lab activities. With the realization that my slides failed to recognize the diversity of Computer Science, I opted not to use the same characters (while sticking with the comic-book like appearance) in the manual. Instead, I created a few of my own graphics that represent some of the various landmarks in the City of Guelph to use in the manual. And to address the lack of diversity in my slides, I used GIMP to create the character of a businesswoman (who is sadly still white).

Clearly, my fix was completely insufficient – and it has remained something that I have wanted to deal with since I first noticed my mistake.

Then an opportunity presented itself this summer in the form of an incredibly talented Computer Science co-op student – Lilian Shi – who was working with me, Dr. Judi McCuaig, and Dr. Andrew Hamilton-Wright. Lilian is a gifted artist. Learning this, we asked if she would be interested in helping to create a set of diverse characters that we could use for our slides, course notes, etc. And fortunately for us, she said yes.

In addition to creating a diverse set of human characters, she created characters of aliens, gryphons (our university mascot), buildings on campus, computers, computer peripherals, and computer parts. And they are fantastic!

I have since used her characters for the redeveloped slide decks for CIS4020 – Data Science. And over the next two semesters, I will be adding them to the CIS3750 slide decks and the course manual as well. Fortunately, Lilian has told me that she is open to creating more artwork (although not full-time as she is currently busy with co-op and courses) – so I’m going to try to find some money this semester or next to hire her to do just that.

One of the most exciting parts about all of this is that Lilian has also agreed to release her art as an Open Educational Resource. We are currently working on the appropriate licensing for that, so stay tuned for more on that!

Diversity is important and representation matters. I should have remembered this when I first started building my slides for CIS3750. And while the inclusion of these graphics is only one small part of my path to improve the diversity and representation within my courses, I am extremely thankful for Lilian’s hard work and talent because my classroom content has begun to better reflect the diversity of people who are in Computer Science.

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