Encouraging Inclusive Learning in Classrooms that Mirror Real World Workspaces

On a recent research trip to the Bay Area, Nery Chapeton-Lamas, Professor of Computer Science at MiraCosta College, visited several coding boot camps and the offices of Black Girls Code, a not-for-profit organization committed to providing young girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills in technology and computer programming. Inside, he found the expected computers and other hardware, but also fresh thinking on how to create an engaging learning environment and reminders of the importance of history and representation.

Each of the boot camps had common design components such as modular furniture design, group-oriented workspaces, and flexible furniture configurations, but what Chapeton was most inspired by was the murals at Black Girls Code. The walls were decorated with culturally representative murals showcasing famous figures from communities of color, supporting an inclusive environment where diverse students are represented in the design and décor of the learning environment.

MiraCosta College is currently constructing a new computer science learning lab that will feature art depicting the history of computer science – from punch cards and vacuum tubes to modern day microcontrollers or raspberry pies – and celebrating MiraCosta’s diverse student body. Opening in time for a return to face-to-face instruction in Fall 2021, the new lab will also feature flexible furniture that can hide computers away or be transformed from single workstations in rows into 4-5 person clusters ideal for collaborative development.
“We’re building a learning environment that mimics real-world work settings as well as creating an environment of open collaboration,” said Michael Paulding, Department Chair of Computer Science. “We already have a curriculum that is highly dialed into the needs of the industry. This new workspace will be similarly aligned, supporting the department’s goal of providing a strong workforce for employers.”

The MiraCosta Computer Science Department was recently designated an Advancing San Diego Preferred Provider in Software talent. Seventeen leading regional employers, including Qualcomm, Illumina, and Northrop Grumman, have thoroughly reviewed and approved the curriculum. The campus trains for several career pathways, including Software Developer, Mobile Application Developer, and Game Developer.
Beyond providing rigorous academic training, Preferred Providers must also demonstrate an ability to meet the needs of diverse and underrepresented student populations. While Paulding and his team have long worked to provide equal access to technology tools to remove equity barriers, recent technology advances have made it much easier to give the students an even playing field.

We already have a curriculum that is highly dialed into the needs of the industry. This new workspace will be similarly aligned, supporting the department’s goal of providing a strong workforce for employers.

Students recently began working with Replit, a free integrated development environment available in more than 50 languages that enables students to write code in an open, Google-like environment that does not require access to specialized software or a dedicated laptop. The department also provides each student access to a Raspberry Pi they can pick up on campus and take home to learn how to develop code for motors, video cameras, and censors – all the tools needed to create a doorbell camera.

“These new tools have been a real game-changer versus how computer science has been done. Students are working collaboratively, which has been unheard of in academia. Also, the ease of access breaks down some equity barriers,” said Paulding.

Another takeaway from Advancing San Diego was a renewed focus on providing access to employers, work-based learning, and speakers from different sectors and industries. The department regularly hosts employers and recently screened the movie Coded Bias, followed by a Q&A with the director. Coded Bias is a Netflix documentary exploring bias in algorithms after M.I.T. Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini uncovered flaws in facial recognition technology. MiraCosta also offers industry certification training and support for Java Development and Android Mobile Application Certifications.

“We offer industry certification so that when you leave MiraCosta, it’s not just with an academic credential, but a stamp of approval from organizations such as Microsoft, Oracle, and Google as well,” said Paulding.