Education Opinion

Barbershop Computing

Moving education beyond computer science pipelines.

black barber giving a haircut to a black boy

Broadening access to and participation in computer science is crucial at all levels of education. But one analogy that might limit our thinking about access and participation is the computer science pipeline. The idea of a pipeline too often frames access to and participation in computer science as an invariant algorithm, which may lead to a narrow “one-size-fits-all” vision of supporting more open, diverse, and inclusive forms of education. This may be especially true for efforts to broaden participation across class, dis/ability, race, and gender at primary and secondary levels. In the context of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) more generally, educator Wendy L. Hill worries that the image of a pipeline is sending the wrong message about who belongs in STEM and that “young people are deciding too early to forgo a STEM career if they don’t have the ‘right profile’.”5 Here, we share alternatives to the image of a pipeline we hope will be more humanizing and conducive for broadening participation in computer science education.

We do this by turning toward our Barbershop Computing project, which involves meaningful engagements with the cultural, economic, historical, social, and technological aspects of Black barbers and barbershops in the U.S. These are sources of inspiration for us in our efforts to reshape computer science teaching and learning. They have also led us to reflect on our own assumptions about what it means to broaden access to and participation in computer science. Instead of making access to computer science a one-way street or an inflexible algorithm, Barbershop Computing seeks to create multi-directional pathways, villages of diverse expertise, and networks of support at multiple scales—all designed with the goal of reaching Black boys. This moves the purpose of computer science education beyond narrow visions of technology workforce preparation to those that are more open and emergent. While our experiences are based in the U.S. context, we hope to inspire people from around the world to think beyond simple notions about students having the “right profile” to participate in computer science.

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Barbershop Computing

Since the summer of 2021, our team has been designing and piloting the Barbershop Computing project. Barbershop Computing is one of many projects featured on the Culturally Situated Design Tools website.2 Other projects include educational materials and technologies based on collaborations with Black braiders, Indigenous artisans, science fiction authors, and more. As opposed to treating culture as a shiny gloss on the “real” educational content, projects on this website are based on the idea that rich and meaningful educational content can emerge from cultural practices, designs, and locations. Indeed, Black barbershops have long been identified as sources of wealth generation and entrepreneurship, community discourse, relationship building, racial autonomy, and cultural production.7,10 This has led to many barbers being trusted community members who not only give clean cuts and affirm self-care, but are also sometimes enrolled in sharing public health information, carrying out literacy campaigns, advocating for Black mental health access, engaging in political organizing, and much more (see Gelzhiser and Lewis4, and Irby6). In a discussion about Black barbers in the 20th century, historian Quincy T. Mills explains: “Similar to black educators, barbers envisioned their work to be in service to black communities.”10

These types of relationships and attitudes continue in the 21st century. Consider Barbershop Books, a program to teach Black barbers effective literacy strategies they can use to support their youngest clients’ reading skills. Founder of Barbershop Books Alvin Irby explains: “The relationship that Black barbers have with young Black boys extends beyond the traditional relationship they have with other professionals such as doctors, dentists, or even teachers in some cases. Barbers tend to look like the boys they serve and they are often thought of as a member of the family.”6 In learning about the dynamic and positive roles that Black barbers play in local communities, we posed the question: What would it look like to collaborate with Black barbers in efforts to support Black boys’ engagement with computer science?

Barbershop Computing has helped us to start answering this question. It is meant to reshape computer science education based on the contexts, people, and practices that are already culturally relevant to many Black boys and their communities. We highlight barbering-computing connections on our Barbershop Computing website. We try to represent the diversity of Black barbers and barbershops, while also highlighting collective cultures and histories alongside shared styles and practices. The website includes a cultural background section where children can learn about the history, economics, and technologies of Black barbershops, study images of designs that barbers have styled for their clients, and use a visual programming environment to recreate designs or come up with their own. We are also in the process of prototyping physical computing activities based on the different types of motors found in clippers and trimmers. This has allowed us to rethink how we approach computational thinking ideas such as decomposition, debugging, and iteration by turning toward how barbers and barbering instructors use, repair, and modify clippers and trimmers. In addition, we have been working to develop teaching strategies for using the website in high school classrooms inspired by the cultures and environments of Black barbershops.

We have reflected on how the project fits into the larger ecology of computer science education.

During this work we have reflected on how the project fits into the larger ecology of computer science education. Within our U.S. context, we think this ecology should include traditional computer science courses such as AP-CSP and AP-CSA but should also extend well beyond them. Indeed, barbers and barbering instructors have helped us to imagine alternative analogies to the computer science pipeline that can help make education itself more diverse, inclusive, and dynamic.

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If we imagine a pipeline, it is likely that we think of an enclosed structure where resources are forced to move in one direction. When applied to people, individual agency seems stripped away. Alternatively, computer science education communities often invoke the analogy of paths or pathways (see Brady et al.1). If we imagine pathways, we can more easily think of people being able to move in multiple directions, when they want and at their own speeds. The language and structure of pathways recognizes opportunities to stop along the way, make detours, and take or create new forks.

With Barbershop Computing we imagine pathways extending to, from, and beyond barbering education and computing education. Making the path multidirectional helps barbering shape computing education and computing shape barbering education. For example, while co-designing the project with barbering instructor and co-author Marwin McKnight, we learned that using the “glide” block added some authenticity to the visual programming experience on the Barbershop Computing website. It not only affords control over position but also the amount of time it takes to create a line. We thus prioritized its use in our curriculum materials. In addition, McKnight helped us to realize how the cultures of cooperation and competition from barbering classrooms and barbershops can motivate pair programming and computational design challenges across media (see the accompanying figure).

Figure. A barbering student started by creating a virtual design in a visual programming environment before recreating it on a hair mannequin, making creative changes in the process.

While barbers will sometimes draw out a design with a pencil prior to shaving it into a client’s hair, McKnight argued that using the visual programming environment instead might offer barbering students more insight into the need for precision when shaving lines and angles. During a co-design meeting he also explained how the programming environment can support creativity and visualization in barbering, especially for students who might have a difficult time seeing themselves as artistic. Unlike paper and pencil, the visual programming environment gives instant feedback for the iterative design and prototyping of creative barbering patterns.

The affordances of this became apparent when implementing Barbershop Computing in a high school barbering classroom. We found that students valued computing culture’s emphasis on trial-and-error learning, which was afforded through prototyping, iterating, and debugging in the visual programming environment. It helped them experiment with different designs in a context that has much lower stakes than shaving designs directly into a client’s hair. Some students noted that the visual programming environment allowed for spontaneity and surprise during their creative processes. As a high school barbering student explained: “So I couldn’t get this angle, I tried a different angle. And then I started messing with numbers and angles to a point where I found something totally different, you know, I liked it, ’cause it was different.” Here the cultures of barbering and the cultures of computing co-shaped each other to create new and innovative learning opportunities.

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Whether city sidewalks or footpaths through woods, pathways converge to connect diverse sources of wealth, knowledge, and experience. The world is full of pathways and with enough of them connecting different locations a village, a town, or a city might form. Here we focus on the analogy of a village because we feel it creates a sense of friendliness or conviviality that is based on intimate relationships between people with varying expertise and at different stages of life. This highlights the importance of leveraging diverse expertise from across villages to support children’s education. You might be able to get some vegetables from the local farm, but it requires bringing them to your aunt’s house to learn how to make your favorite stew. Computer science education researchers build on the village analogy to explain that broadening participation “takes a village” of not only teachers and students but administrators, policymakers, cultural experts, parents, elders, researchers, coaches, and others.8,11

Computer science education communities often invoke the analogy of paths or pathways.

In the design of the Barbershop Computing program, our team has sought to form a village made up of a diversity of expertise and institutional positions. Our team is composed of people with expertise in computing, culture, African-American studies, education, learning, barbering, research, and administration. This Barbershop Computing village has helped us to clear pathways between education at university, state, and district levels; pathways between computer science education and career and technical education; and pathways between teaching barbering and teaching coding, just to name some.

For example, Barbershop Computing co-designers and co-authors Eleanor R. Glover Gladney and Dominick Sanders both work for the South Carolina Department of Education. While Gladney represents career and technical education, Sanders represents the state’s computer science education initiatives. As they have helped to make clear during our collaborations, broadening participation means understanding computer science education holistically. It is not just about programming for programming’s sake but allowing computer science education to be shaped by expertise and knowledge from across disciplines and curricula. Having both Gladney and Sanders on the team helps make the village mutually supportive. We are not just working to improve computer science education or coding lessons but are also working to improve career and technical education and barbering lessons.

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It would be a mistake to assume we should limit our thinking about reshaping computer science education to any one scale. Therefore, we think the analogy of a network is also helpful.3 Networks are made up of nodes connected by edges at any scale, including villages or even smaller. The network analogy helps us to move beyond a narrow, localized vision of computer science education to also include more global visions. Or, perhaps even more importantly, computing networks allow us to break down the division between what is local and what is global. We will need solidarity across race, class, and nationality to solve today’s economic and environmental crises, in which computing is certainly implicated.9 Indeed, we know that no village has everything it needs to be successful. A village should network with other villages and institutions at multiple scales to help accomplish its goals and contribute to the goals of others.

In the design of the Barbershop Computing program, our team has sought to form a village made up of a diversity of expertise and institutional positions.

As our team has worked to design the Barbershop Computing project it has networked with national organizations. The National Center for Women and Information Technology invited members of our team to speak about our approach to broadening participation. Interested in the idea of bringing coding into barbering education, the National Association of Barber Boards of America invited us to demonstrate the project at one of their annual meetings. Barbers and barbering instructors offered critiques on the authenticity of the website, insights into how it can be used in the classroom, and warnings about the risks of digitizing or automating artistic work. Our team is now a node between these organizations, creating possibilities for future connections and collaborations. Being included in these national networks reinforces our own village and the pathways that make it up. It also legitimizes them for teachers and students, broadening and pluralizing the cultures of computing education in the process.

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The analogy of a pipeline signals that computer science education and the workforce are primed for dehumanization by treating people like resources to be extracted and processed. In efforts to construct more humanizing visions for broadening participation to support Black boys’ interest and knowledge of computer science, our Barbershop Computing project relies on alternative analogies that are based on forming intimate and respectful relationships across cultural contexts, in this case barbering and computing, at multiple scales. We want barbers and computer scientists to form relationships and to create opportunities for them to co-shape each other’s teaching and learning. If such relationships are sustained over a long enough period of time perhaps computational barbering will be added to the computational sciences. Thus, Barbershop Computing is about broadening the participation of Black boys in computing while broadening the participation of computer science and computing education in barbering and barbering education.

    1. Brady, C. et al. All roads lead to computing: Making, participatory simulations, and social computing as pathways to computer science. IEEE Transactions on Education 60, 1 (2016), 59–66.

    2. Eglash, R. et al. Culturally situated design tools: Ethnocomputing from field site to classroom. American Anthropologist 108, 2 (2006), 347–362.

    3. Eglash, R. Automation for the artisanal economy: Enhancing the economic and environmental sustainability of crafting professions with human-machine collaboration. AI & Society 35, 3 (2020), 595–609.

    4. Gelzhiser, J.A. and Lewis, L. Barbers as mental health, suicide prevention, and interpersonal violence gatekeepers in the community: Perspectives from people of color in a racially divided America during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Confess Project (2022); https://bit.ly/3QLUtho

    5. Hill, W.L. The myth of the STEM pipeline. Inside Higher Ed. (Oct. 2019); https://bit.ly/3QC97YE

    6. Irby, A. Barbershop books. In Johnson, A.M. Ed. You Next: Reflections in Black Barber Shops. Lawrence Hill Books, 2020, 80–81.

    7. Johnson, A.M., Ed. You Next: Reflections in Black Barber Shops, Lawrence Hill Books, 2020.

    8. Lachney, M. et al. Teaching in an open village: A case study on culturally responsive computing in compulsory education. Computer Science Education 31, 4 (2021), 1–27.

    9. Lachney, M. et al. Introduction to the special section on justice-centered computing education, part 1. ACM Transactions on Computing Education (TOCE) 21, 4 (2021), 1–15.

    10. Mills, Q.T. Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

    11. Ryoo, J. et al. It takes a village: Supporting inquiry- and equity-oriented computer science pedagogy through a professional learning community. Computer Science Education 25, 4 (2015), 351–370.

    Authors are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

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