Apr 22 2022

Q&A: Victor Hicks on Blending Computer Science with Culture

The Coding with Culture program creator explains how HBCUs and other culturally relevant lessons can be included in STEM learning — and what students can gain from it.

Since mid-2020, the Coding with Culture program has offered project-based courses that incorporate cultural elements and computer science–based instruction.

Participants from grades K–8 may, for instance, design a historically Black college and university (HBCU) campus, create a video game featuring a superhero of color or undertake other hands-on digital skill exercises.

EdTech spoke with Victor Hicks — known as Coach Hicks — the program’s founder and a STEM teacher at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Decatur, Ga. He shared the ways culture and computer science intersect, the benefits of including information about HBCUs in coding courses and the tech tools he’s using to help kids learn about computational thought.

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EDTECH: Why is there a need today for more culture in the computer science field?

HICKS: In STEM careers, numbers don’t lie. Traditionally, African Americans have not entered into them as quickly as their Caucasian counterparts.

We know that a big part of predicting African American children’s success in STEM and computer science fields is seeing themselves in those roles, and seeing people who have come before them.

There definitely is a need for more programs that promote that pathway. Where HBCUs came in, for me, was as a great way to highlight African American culture, history and excellence. But it’s also a very realistic path for kids. For African American students, when you think about taking a path that might be uncertain, like computer science, what better place to do it at than a school that was created specifically for your success?

EDTECH: How have you been able to incorporate culture into your instruction?

HICKS: Once students learn the coding skills, we create the final project, and generally, that’s where the cultural piece comes in. HBCUs tend to be our springboard, but we have also done music production. As they create music using Java or Python, we ask, “What is the meaning of your song? Are we talking about social justice or issues that may be affecting their community, or just simply celebrating moments in Black history?”

Victor Hicks
Once students learn the coding skills, we create the final project, and generally, that’s where the cultural piece comes in.”

Victor Hicks Founder, Coding with Culture

We’ve done some things with video game design where we talk about superheroes of color. We researched some cultural origins of mythology involving people of color all over the world. Once kids create the storyboard, we apply those computer science skills to program our game.

EDTECH: What types of technology have contributed to your program's success?

HICKS: We’ve done a lot with several online coding platforms. I’ve found mixing that experience is good for kids. They start to conceptualize the skill, not just the particular look or feel of one program or the other.

Google Classroom has been awesome. We have also used Microsoft Teams. When they create their song with code, we use EarSketch, which has been a great programming platform. It has a really cool transition from block-based programming into text coding.

Flipgrid has become a one-stop shop for everything video, from my instructional videos to when the kids have questions. I have them record their screens and talk to me. I can hear what their thinking is, but also, it gives me the powerful ability to see their code as they’re explaining it. We use Tinkercad for 3D modeling, and we do a lot of design thinking. Then, they build their final prototype in Minecraft.

EDTECH: How can school districts incorporate culture into their coding and other STEM instruction?

HICKS: Generally speaking, it comes from the subject matter of the coding. I would suggest districts and teachers explore their own passions, but listen to the passions of their students too. What are some issues they’re concerned about?

HBCUs are something I was very passionate about, so I was able to incorporate that. Our music program has taken on more of a social justice piece. Just in taking feedback from our participating families and some of our students, I saw there are some other things people are passionate about that tie into addressing the digital divide or getting traditionally underrepresented communities excited about computational thought.

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EDTECH: What are the advantages of cultural STEM programs for minority students?

HICKS: Our student’s futures will include job opportunities and workplace situations that we don’t even realize right now. Everyone is not going to be a computer scientist, but the ability to work collaboratively and complete projects within a virtual space are now very realistic and in-demand skills.

Students also benefit from the exposure to culture that Coding with Culture provides, even if it’s not the culture of that particular student. To truly have diversity, inclusion and equity, everybody has to understand that there are excellence and traditions in everyone’s background.

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