Research

My identity as a computer science educator, critical scholar, and woman of color, shape my interest in and use of critical pedagogies in STEM disciplines—particularly computer science and science education—to create inclusive and equitable spaces for teaching and learning. Throughout my work, I use culturally sustaining and intersectional lenses with the aim of systemically dismantling the barriers that prevent the pursuits of women and people of color in computer science and science education. By using these critical lenses, I seek to design technologically equipped classroom environments and build pedagogical practices that provide students of color an equitable and inclusive learning space.

Taking inspiration from the humanizing, culturally sustaining, and socioculturally grounded works of Freire (2000), Crenshaw (1989), and Ladson-Billings (2000), I am critical of the single-sided narratives that erase the stories of people of color and create a distorted analysis of race and sexism nationally and internationally. The critical lenses of culture, race, and gender provide me with the tools to seek equitable, inclusive and decolonial ways of thinking about science, engineering, and computer science education. As a scholar, these three lenses inform my work and so far, have helped me explore the complexities of culture, race, and gender in science, engineering, and computer science education. For instance, my identity as a woman of color and a computer science engineer has helped me better understand the nuances and complexities prevalent in the heteronormative, male-dominated, western ways of knowing. I use this understanding to help create spaces where women and students of color aspiring to be computer scientists and future problem-solvers can engage in computer coding.

In my dissertation, I explore computer science faculty’s beliefs on using a culturally responsive computing approach (that integrates the lens of intersectionality) and leveraging community-based resources in teaching CS courses at the undergraduate level (Mehta, manuscript 2021). Through interviews, so far, I have found that faculty are apprehensive towards leveraging culturally responsive community-based resources in CS courses as it requires additional time and effort that they do not have due to their research and teaching obligations. Faculty also acknowledged that universities and colleges need to act towards supporting faculty in understanding critical pedagogy and leveraging community-based resources in their CS courses. Faculty agreed that the result of a predominately white male dominated pedagogical approach ends up further marginalizing and dissuading students of color and women from persisting in their CS bachelor’s degrees beyond their first year.

Taking a critical approach to technology, I collaborated to understand educational technologists’ views on how the politics and values of equity, diversity, and inclusivity are perceived and addressed in the design and development processes of educational programming software (Lachney, Mehta, Dunbar & Opps, AERA 2021). A subset of our results suggests that technologists in their design took a neutral stance towards issues of race and gender and towards settling the issue of bias in design. Utilizing Winner’s theory on technological politics, we found that a racially neutral language when used in the design and development of technologies may conceal unequal power relationships that inform group identities of students from historically disenfranchised communities.

In science education, through the MSUrban STEM Teaching Fellowship program, I worked as a researcher with Chicago Public School (CPS) STEM teachers. I studied, with other colleagues, experience-based learning and TPACK approach towards promoting a creativity and wonder-driven perspective in teaching and learning science and other STEM disciplines (Seals, Mehta, Graves Wolf & Marcotte, 2017). Our research suggested that teacher’s self-efficacy increased significantly over time as part of the MSUrbanSTEM program (Seals, Mehta, Berzina-Pitcher, Graves-Wolf, 2017). We also found that the teachers (a) practiced the scientific discipline as a lens of looking at the world, (b) created in their classes a learning setting that encouraged aesthetic experiences like wonder and curiosity, and (c) empowered their students to use science as a tool to solve societal problems and promote equality (Mehta, Mehta & Seals, 2017).

In engineering education, using design thinking and case studies, I was able to co-design courses for first-generation historically minoritized students to help them explore their creative potentials by working closely with local communities and building on community-based practices. Through an NSF-funded project with Dr. Aman Yadav (PI) from Michigan State and Dr. Ashlie Martini (co-PI) from University of California, Merced, we explored the potential of case-based instruction and design thinking to make the transition of first-generation Hispanic mechanical engineering students into their careers (Mehta, Yadav, Martini, AERA, 2017). Using quasi-experimental designs and surveys, we found that students use of a Stanford D-school design thinking approach to solve cases (that were based on problems that their local communities’ farmers faced), made simpler for them to empathize with the local farmers, break down their problems into parts making it more manageable, and finally find tangible solutions that help reduce labor, machine costs and time that farmers dedicate in harvesting their crops.

Looking ahead, I am interested in using digital tools to create culturally inclusive teaching and learning spaces in computer science and STEM disciplines. I seek to empower students and women from disenfranchised communities to envision themselves as scientists and technological creators.

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