July 27, 2022

Power On!: Why CS Education Can No Longer Pretend to Be “Neutral” 

Categories: Connected Learning, Educational Practice, Equity, Featured

Power On!, our newly released graphic novel (MIT Press, April 2022), follows the experiences of four high school friends from diverse backgrounds as they confront the harm technology has done in their own community. We follow them as they awaken to how computer science (CS) impacts our daily lives and ask questions such as: Can robots be racist? How is the underrepresentation of People of Color and women in tech impacting our world? Together, they commit to learning CS and taking a stand about the education they want, need, and deserve.

We wrote Power On! at this historical moment, when tech is power and involved in all aspects of our lives—the good and the bad. Our hope is that Power On! will spark important discussions both in and out of the classroom about why CS education can no longer hide behind an apolitical mask of “objectivity” and “neutrality.” 

What do we mean by this?

In the world of tech, little focus is placed on computer scientists’ responsibility to address the ethical implications of their creations. Silicon Valley promotes a “fail fast” culture focused on making the next new thing, with limited consideration about whether one should make that new thing. Little thought is given to whose values are being centered and who will benefit or be harmed by tech.

As a result, CS plays a dangerous role in exacerbating inequalities and political polarization, through biased algorithms and tech platforms promoting disinformation, hate speech, and extremism that most negatively impacts low-income communities and People of Color (e.g., Benjamin, 2019; O’Neil, 2017; Noble, 2018). The perspectives, beliefs, and views of a white male majority computer scientist community get embedded into tech creations, but this reality is not questioned in computing classrooms that are preparing future computer scientists for their engagement with the world.


So what does pushing back on this false notion of CS as “apolitical” and “neutral” look like in Power On!?

We decided to focus on real-world problems that youth told us are pressing today, and we shaped a story around taking a critical stance about computing in our tech-saturated world. The main characters learn about racist AI; they find information about current tech workforce demographics and the lack of access to CS education in their school district. They also explore how CS is used across all fields and why everyone deserves to learn CS.

[Image: Power On! graphic novel illustrated by Charis JB]


In Power On!, we translated decades of our research about inequalities in CS education (Margolis et. al, 2008, 2017) and our current student voice research (Ryoo, Tanksley, Estrada, & Margolis, 2020; Ryoo, Morris, & Margolis, 2021), drawing from interviews with urban Latinx and Black rural youth across Los Angeles and Mississippi. We describe what students have shared with us: youth engagement with CS increases when they have opportunities to see how computing connects to the social issues they experience and care about (including Black Lives Matter, global warming, political polarization, anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, and the rise of misinformation).

For example, Natalia, a Latina student from Los Angeles, who we began interviewing when she was a Junior taking Advanced Placement CS Principles, shared with us:

In terms of actually convincing people who think that computer science (CS) is this disconnected topic away from reality…it really isn’t. We use it all the time. And, I think hammering down the point of the ways that it does affect people—whether it is algorithmic bias, or how it connects to politics or how it can bring communities together, and how we can bring resources to places that might now have good access to them, and even things like the digital divide, with some people not having any good internet access, and how that can really hinder some communities and people out there…I think just really focusing on the point that it’s not this disconnected thing that you have to learn in a classroom, in a vacuum, that it is always intermingling with us. It is affecting the way we live for the most part and you can’t really treat it like it is in this vacuum because it really isn’t. 

For this type of meaningful connection to be made in CS learning, teacher pedagogy matters. Yet a nationwide teacher survey revealed that almost 39% of CS teachers do not see the importance of covering computing’s role in perpetuating biases related to racism, sexism, and other inequities in their classrooms, and only 59% of white teachers say they are confident using material highlighting race, ethnicity, and culture (Koshy et. al, 2021).

Recognizing that this book alone will not shift teacher practice, we collaborated with Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) Equity Fellows to create a facilitator guide that supports pedagogical practice with Power On! by offering standards-aligned curated activities and discussion questions around topics raised in the book.


[Image: Power On! Facilitator Guide]


In this way, Power On! supports our larger community’s efforts to center equity and justice in computing learning spaces. Building on the critical educational work of Vakil and Higgs (2019), the Kapor Center Framework for Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Pedagogy, the Connected Learning Lab’s contributions to the HX project, and others, we seek to challenge current inequitable CS cultures by focusing on students’ critical consciousness, addressing ethics in tech, and centering student agency.

To this last point, Power On! and the educator resources were also inspired by the work of late Civil Rights leader and math educator, Bob Moses (2002), who said:

“We believe that the kind of systemic change necessary to prepare our young people for the demands of the 21st century requires young people to take the lead in changing it.” 

Student agency is the heartbeat of Power On! as the novel follows youth on their journey to becoming advocates and activists who fight for all students to experience meaningful CS education.

We hope that Power On! will support a systemic view of CS in both school and out-of-school learning contexts. It is not sufficient to only teach how to create with CS; it is necessary for students to learn about the larger system within which CS lives, the impact of tech designs and creations, and how to think critically about the world we are in. As Gloria Ladson-Billings—the author of culturally responsive pedagogy—explained, “the teacher’s role is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge, and the dispositions to change the inequity” (Fay, 2019).

In these next months we are working on translations of the book, an audio version for blind and low-vision readers, and sharing Power On! with more teachers, administrators, families, and youth. We hope you will read the novel, try out our educator resources, and join us as we Power On!



Benjamin, R. (2019). Race after technology. Polity.

Fay, L. (August 2019). Lessons from her decades in education research, interview with Gloria Ladson-Billings. The 74 Interview.

Koshy, S., Martin, A., Hinton, L. Scott, A., Twarek, B., & Davis, K. (2021). The computer science teachers landscape: Results of a national survey. CSTA and the Kapor Center.

Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Jellison Holme, J., & Nao, K. (2008, 2017). Stuck in the shallow end: Education, race, and computing. MIT Press.

Moses, R., & Cobb, C. Jr. (2001). Radical equations: Civil rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. Beacon Press.

Noble, S. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York University Press.

O’Neil, C. (2016, 2017). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. Broadway Books.

Ryoo, J., Tanksley, T., Estrada, C., & Margolis, J. (2020). Take space, make space: How students use computer science to disrupt and resist marginalization in schools. Computer Science Education, 30(3), 337-361. DOI: 10.1080/08993408.2020.1805284

Ryoo, J., Morris, A., & Margolis, J. (2021). What happens to the Raspado Man in a cash-free society?: Teaching and learning socially responsible computing.  In C. Hundhausen (Ed.), ACM Transactions on Computing Education, 21(4). Special Issue on Justice-Centered Computing Education, DOI: 10.1145/3477981.

Vakil, S., & Higgs, J. 2019.  It’s about power: A call to rethink ethics and equity in computing education. Communications of the ACM, 62(3), 31-33.


This work will be featured at the 2022 Connected Learning Summit. To learn more about this topic, please join Dr. Jean Ryoo discussing a video presentation of Power On! on Wednesday, July 27, at the Connected Approaches to STEAM Learning and Inclusion meet up. Check out the schedule and register today! 

Guest post by Dr. Jean Ryoo and Dr. Jane Margolis from the UCLA CS Equity Project.

Dr. Ryoo is the Director of Research of the UCLA CS Equity Project and Dr. Jane Margolis is a senior researcher at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. Both are long-time researchers in equity in CS education and are currently collaborating in research-practice partnerships funded by the National Science Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google CS-ER, and Siegel Family Foundation to elevate minoritized youth voices, build administrator understanding of equitable implementation of computer science curricula and pedagogy, and support family/community advocacy of equitable computing education in public schools. Dr. Margolis is author of two books: Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing and Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. Both focus on a systemic analysis of underrepresentation in computing.