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Expanding Digital Pathways for Native Girls

“Tom walks over to the bookshelf and chooses a thick red volume to lay on the counter. The Indian Industrial School, Carlisle Pennsylvania, 1879–1918. In the back of the book is a list of names, pages and pages of them; Charlotte Bigtree (Mohawk), Stephen Silver Heels (Oneida), Thomas Medicine Horse (Sioux). Tom points to show me his uncle’s name. “That’s why we’re doing this,” he says, “undoing Carlisle.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013, p. 263)

Computer Science and Native Students

We know that computer science is an increasingly foundational subject, providing critical skills and knowledge needed across all fields and careers. We also know that there are vast disparities in access to computer science courses, and Native students are least likely to have access to computer science courses in their schools. Rural Native students and communities also face infrastructure challenges in access to broadband wifi and devices, and given their underrepresentation in the technology workforce, are less likely to have visible role models and exposure to computing career pathways. Additionally, there is a disconnect between the teaching, curriculum, and culture of computer science and indigenous cultures.

Data show just how few Native students are entering the computing pipeline.

  • Native students comprise between 1–2% of the school-aged population in the U.S, but account for just .4% of the students taking AP Computer Science.
  • In raw numbers, just 568 Native students (Native American/Alaskan Native/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander) across the country took an AP CS course in 2019; and just 128 were Native girls.

Expanding CS Opportunities for Native Girls

Increasing access to culturally relevant computer science (CS) courses for Native American girls and students is an important and urgent part of supporting Native communities and providing pathways into the technology ecosystem. In 2019, the Kapor Center partnered with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Reboot Representation Coalition to expand computer science opportunities for Native high school students and girls/LGBTQ+/Two-Spirit students. The Expanding Computer Science Opportunities for Native Girls project seeks to increase interest, engagement, and participation in computing education by developing a series of courses from introductory level to Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science which contain culturally relevant activities and modules aligned with tribal cultural values, beliefs, languages, traditions, and goals for sovereignty.

Two Native-serving partner schools were selected to partner on implementing Exploring Computer Science (ECS) and Computer Science Principles (CSP) courses:

  • Stilwell High School in rural eastern Oklahoma. Over 70% of Stilwell High School’s 634 students are Cherokee and 100% are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program. Stilwell has implemented a number of innovative CS curricula in recent years and has developed a Cherokee Language and Lifeways course sequence and so welcomed the opportunity to offer tribe-specific and culturally relevant CS courses for their students. Stilwell currently offers ECS and CSP to a combined total of 95 students.
  • Mescalero Apache School in New Mexico, a Bureau of Indian Education school, also agreed to implement a culturally relevant CSP course to complement its engineering and robotics programs. Located on a rural reservation north of El Paso, TX, Mescalero Apache has 612 students in its K-12 school, 100% of whom are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program. Mescalero Apache School had previously used the Apache language in teaching CS courses and were excited to introduce culturally relevant physical computing concepts to their students. There are 17 students enrolled in the CSP course, 10 of whom are girls.

Over the past year, tribe-specific, gender responsive culturally relevant CS curricula were developed by a team of CS curriculum experts and teachers and cultural experts from partner tribes in Fall 2020. In August in-service teachers and a few Native female students from each school were provided with professional development workshops to familiarize them with the course content and inquiry-based pedagogies. A female student who enrolled in the AP CSP course at Stilwell described how her passion for CS was ignited by the hands-on, project-based approach to learning:

“When I got the email about this opportunity I was so eager […] At first I was super overwhelmed and discouraged but as these meetings have gone by, I have quickly grown a love for computer science. I just want to say thank you for this opportunity, your patience and your willingness to help me learn. I will forever be grateful for it.”

female student, Stilwell HS, Oklahoma

In an additional conversation after the workshops, she indicated her interest in CS was sparked in part by learning how to make real world objects like servo motors and LED lights change their position or state using programming and being able to demonstrate CS skills that wowed her parents and siblings. CS students have also been able to draw connections between the CS concepts they are learning and their tribe’s cultural practices. For example, one of the units from the computer science principles course involves programming a strip of LED lights to make the lights move from one tribe-specific traditional beadwork pattern to another. CS students will be hosting pow wow dances with robots in their Exploring Computer Science courses. Students at Mescalero Apache School have been programming arduinos using their words from their traditional language. An inspiring sneak peek into the projects that the students at Stilwell High School developed as part of their first unit project can be viewed here!

The experiences and perceptions of this student indicate that thoughtful and culturally relevant, specific and applicable learning experiences can make a significant difference in inspiring interest in computing and encouraging the participation of students often left out of computer science — particularly Native girls. We believe that there is a great deal of traditional and cultural knowledge that can be incorporated into computing education and serve to both inspire and engage Native students and we encourage this intentional approach to expanding equity in computing education by grounding curriculum in students’ cultures.

A little over a century ago the flagship Indian Boarding School, Carlisle Indian School, closed its doors after its last class session during the 1918 flu pandemic. Located on Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, the Carlisle Indian School’s mission was to “Kill the Indian: Save the Man.” While many educators have since renounced the goal of assimilating Native students into white American culture as a project, there is still a long way to go to ensure that Native children and communities have the institutional resources and support to maintain and practice their languages and cultures as part of their education. Today, computing and STEM educators can create a much more enriching, welcoming, and sustaining environment for students in Native-serving schools by intentionally incorporating tribe-specific, culturally relevant, and gender responsive curricula into their STEM and computing courses. We hope that the activities and outcomes of this project might help inform and expand equity and inclusion in K-12 computer science education — particularly for Native students.

COVID-19 and Native Communities

As we work to expand computer science education in Native communities, we must underscore that Native communities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the existing education disparities are likely to be exacerbated by hardships including increased caregiving for sick relatives and siblings, loss of family income due to the economic recession, increased mental and emotional illness and stress due to prolonged isolation and the loss of elder, culture bearers, healers, and other family members, and the lack of access to laptops, computers, and broadband needed to participate in remote learning. This moment has highlighted the urgency of closing the digital divide, addressing deeply-entrenched disparities in Native education, expanding economic opportunity in Native communities, and expanding access to culturally relevant computing education for Native students and families. And without protecting the health and wellbeing of Native communities, the lives of many culture bearers and elders will be in jeopardy during the pandemic, affecting entire tribal traditions, cosmologies, and languages which will be crucial for sustaining Native school communities and future generations of students.

Get Involved

If you are a Native/indigenous woman working in the tech ecosystem and you would like to support Native youth in computing, please reach out to Frieda McAlear,, to learn more about ways you can share your stories with students in the Expanding CS Opportunities for Native Girls project.

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The Kapor Center aims to enhance diversity and inclusion in the technology and entrepreneurship ecosystem through increasing access to tech and STEM education programs, conducting research on access and opportunity in computing, investing in community organizations and gap-closing social ventures, and increasing access to capital among diverse entrepreneurs. Learn more about Kapor Center at:

The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) is a national, nonprofit organization focused on substantially increasing the representation of American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, First Nations and other indigenous peoples of North America in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies and careers. Learn more about AISES at:

The Reboot Representation Tech Coalition is a coalition of tech companies which collectively aim to double the number of Black, Latina, and Native American women receiving computing degrees by 2025. Learn more about Reboot Representation at: