Uniting Computer Coding and Humanities Thinking

Richard Culatta, the 2017 honored alumni speaker, uses his humanities degree in Spanish teaching to combat educational inequality in the United States and Latin America. He then challenged all humanities majors to learn coding as a problem solving tool.

“I’m an incredibly proud alumnus of the BYU College of Humanities, especially because of the Humanities+ program,” said Richard Culatta, the 2017 Humanities honored alumni speaker. Now the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Culatta aids schools to solve educational issues through internet connectivity.

When Culatta was a student pursuing a degree in Spanish teaching, he became interested in using tech to solve global education inequality. Culatta organized an ORCA project with the Fundación Rose to provide computers for students in rural Guatemala. “The moment we plugged in that cable, the moment that we connected that school, these kids suddenly had a chance to compete in a globally connected world,” he said. Internet connectivity is an important resource to fight global education inequality because it ensures that even students in developing countries can access information and experts around the world.

Culatta’s interest in connectivity continued when he worked for the U.S. Department of Education in the Office of Technology. When he arrived in 2011 only about 20% of schools had internet connectivity in the classroom. Thanks to a national effort, by 2017 that number had grown to 94%. But still relatively few students were learning how to code. This is a problem, Culatta noted, because “if we don’t teach our students to code now, we’ve basically outsourced our ability to invent the future.” On a global scale, understanding computer programming is becoming more and more essential in a variety of professions, and American schools that exclude coding from the curriculum can limit students’ progression.  

Rhode Island had one of the lowest rates of students passing the AP Computer Science test in the country.  As the state’s first Chief Innovation Officer, Culatta partnered with education leaders, local businesses, and universities to take on the challenge of ensuring coding was taught in all public schools. “Coding is the universal language of problem solving,” he said. “Whatever problem we are presented with, at some point along the way coding is almost always part of the solution.” Teaching coding in school, Culatta explained, gives students a leg up on participating in a world increasingly dependent on technology.

Learning the language of coding, however, is not the only asset in solving human problems. Humanities majors have much to contribute to the tech industry because of the unique way they are taught to think. According to Culatta, software engineers are trained to ask, “How do we build it?” Humanities majors, however, are trained to ask questions like “Should we build it?”  and “What are the ethical implications if we build it?” He explained, “The skill of knowing how to solve problems and the skill of knowing what problems to solve are not the same thing—If those who study humanities choose not to participate in these conversations we allow others, who are not trained to ask the same questions, to take our seat at the table. The way you get invited to the table is to speak the language: coding.”

At the end of his presentation, Culatta issued a challenge to all humanities students and faculty to learn to code, citing Udacity and Khan Academy as helpful, free resources. He asked them to first, identify a problem—global or local—that needs to be solved; second, to become uniquely qualified to solve that problem and learn coding as part of those qualifications; third, to partner with others who have deeper tech skills to jointly create solutions. “We can build a world where technology decisions are being shaped by those who understand language, culture, and art—a world where what we are solving is as important as how we solve it.” Culatta closed, “You have the ability to make that world a reality by learning the language that allows you to participate in the conversation.”

—Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Photo Courtesy of Javier Quesada on Unsplash