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). I found that although faculty were apprehensive towards leveraging culturally responsive community-based resources, they acknowledged that universities and colleges need to act towards supporting them in understanding critical pedagogy and developing connections with the community. A preference to be neutral in designing curriculum and projects resonated through all the participant responses suggesting a mindset that computer science needs to be perceived as a culture-free, nonsocial realm where faculty are concerned about how not to make the dominant group – white students – uncomfortable by choosing to discuss racial issues. My work indicates a need for critically framed self-sustaining faculty professional development in computer science undergraduate and graduate level degrees. Training faculty to check their own biases and how to successfully navigate racial tensions (often a part of group & lab work in CS courses) may help make Black, Hispanic, & Indigenous students feel supported and accepted in a discipline that is dominated by white males. It will also allow to educate White students on why diversity in teams brings value and culturally diverse perspectives to the design and development of programs and algorithms making the coding systems that computer scientists develop less biased (Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression, 2018). It further points suggests that the use of racially neutral language in the curriculum design and classroom discourse conceals unequal power relationships that inform group identities of historically disenfranchised students. For example, how does the word ‘All’ in ‘CS for All’ address the racial inequity and lack of access?

Taking a critical approach to technology, I collaborated with Dr. Ron Eglash at the University of Michigan to create a course incorporating culturally situated design tools (CSDT) that allow students to interconnect African American, Indigenous, and Latinx cultural practices with math and science concepts. As a curriculum developer on the project, I incorporated my experience in computer programming, along with an in-depth understanding of culturally sustaining pedagogy and CSTA & K12 math and science concepts & standards. I collaborated with a high school math/computer science teacher at Albany High School, New York, to design and develop a four-module course that introduced students to using and manipulating coding blocks in CSDT web applications and develop individualized projects. I created coding projects for students using CSnap block-based programming language to design cultural artifacts like quilts and cornrow curves. Given the situation the pandemic created for students, the project sought to create an entirely online worksheet for students and teachers to make it simpler to work with the CSDT tools. The CSDT coding projects allow students to explore the potential of their art, math and coding skills and value its interconnectedness to different cultural practices. Furthermore, connecting computing concepts like functions, conditionals, arrays, strings, and variables to the cultural history of Black, Indigenous and Latinx students can help students to envision themselves as digital innovators who have a right to pursue a technical computer science education. I see a need in computer science education to integrate social justice and equity issues.

Taking a similar critical lens, 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.

As the equity & diversity advisor on a multi-million dollar California Department of Education, Educator Workforce Investment Grant proposal, I created and wrote the equity framework that is informed by the Culturally Responsive Computing framework (Scott, Sheridan, & Clark, 2015). The Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan (CSSIP) grant proposal seeks to bridge the gap in the understanding and implementation of CS principles in California K-12 Schools by offering professional development and open educational resources for teachers using multimodal (Online, Face-to-Face [F2F] and hybrid) delivery pathways. The grant also seeks to develop communities of highly qualified CS teachers and coaches who work with culturally and linguistically diverse (rural and urban) communities and build capacity for CS throughout the state and through regional educational and industry consortia partners by offering a Special Projects fund to support local agencies.

Looking ahead, I am interested in using digital tools to create culturally inclusive teaching and learning spaces in computer science and STEM disciplines at the K-8 level. I seek to empower students and women from disenfranchised communities to envision themselves as scientists and technological creators.

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