Innovative “Black Voices in Computing” Exhibit Showcases Overlooked Contributors to Computing History

October 2, 2023

On Monday, August 28, an exhibit titled “Black Voices in Computing” debuted in the lobby of the Information Sciences Building. Recognizing that conventional histories of computing have typically neglected the efforts of Black scholars; the exhibit aims to center the contributions of Black technologists and researchers in the field of computing and information. 

The exhibit also occasioned collaboration between the School of Computing & Information (SCI) faculty and undergraduate students. The students who participated in constructing the exhibit said that they gained valuable hands-on experience and enjoyed learning from faculty while working alongside them.

The exhibit relays this history through the innovative usage of tablets as picture frames that serve as a series of augmented reality (AR) checkpoints, which viewers can activate through their smartphones. When engaged, a series of the checkpoints trigger segments from an audio interview with Dr. Angela Stewart (assistant professor, Department of Informatics and Networked Systems), in which she talks about her pathway to computing and information and describes the value of equity and inclusion within technology, as well as the teaching philosophy she has developed as a professor of computing. The checkpoints also trigger short audio clips about four other historical and contemporary Black scholars in computing and information. 

The project began during the 2021-2022 academic year, which was declared the “Year of Data and Society” by the Office of the Provost. 

As Chelsea Gunn, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship (ICDS), tells it, “Early on in the project …Rosta [Farzan, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at SCI] observed that a Google search for ‘computer scientist’ returned a list of notable figures, almost all white men. But of course, that’s not representative of the field of computing, past or present.” 

Undergraduate student collaborators played a key role in helping bring the exhibit to life. Liam Weixel, an English Writing and Film and Media Studies double major, worked as a narrative designer on the project. He said that he considered the tablets to be serving a role similar to chapters in a book, and that he hoped those viewing the exhibit would think of the devices in such terms. 

He added that while the snippets of Stewart’s interview do build on each other in a successive fashion, viewers can choose to navigate the tablets in any sequence. 

“There is a progressive momentum to the iPads, but if you look at them out of order, you still get a picture of Dr. Stewart,” Weixel said. 

Though Weixel said most of his writing is typically “fiction and film analysis,” he was able to apply some of the techniques he refined in those modes of writing to the narrative design of the exhibition. His experience writing fiction helped him “visualize what the narrative would look like and what it would look like to take that narrative in,” and his knowledge of film analysis helped him better understand “the correlations that people are going to draw from the quotes they’re hearing and the footage they’re seeing.” 

In addition to the exhibit’s narrative design, Weixel said he also drafted five reports on Black pioneers in computing that feature as components of the installation.

Another student, Janet Majekodunmi, a computer science major (SCI ’23), joined the effort after reaching out to Farzan to ask about how she could become involved in work promoting diversity in SCI. 

“I was interested in broadcasting different scholars within the Black community that haven’t been highlighted, that I hadn’t heard about, and promoting that information to allow Black students to see that there are other people like them that have succeeded in this industry,” Majekodunmi said.  

Her responsibilities while working on the project mostly consisted of gathering data and drafting interview questions for the project’s interviewees, as well as identifying important moments for inclusion in the exhibit from the resulting interviews. 

“I think the dynamics between students and faculty were good, and that it was a good environment for students to work in and gain exposure,” she said. 

Majekodunmi emphasized the importance of actively seeking out opportunities to get involved with similar work on campus. 

“I will say that if I hadn't reached out to Dr. Farzan, I wouldn't have known about this project at all,” Majekodunmi said. “And I really enjoyed the opportunity to contribute to this project and learn from different people, different faculty, different aspects of the [SCI] community working on the project. Reaching out to faculty and seeing what projects they're doing, just to see if they could be aligned with a student’s interests, is something that I would want to emphasize.”

The Black Voices in Computing exhibit will be viewable in the lobby of the Information Sciences Building through the end of September. 


--Daniel Beresheim