With me in her womb, my mother crossed the U.S.-Mexican border in the trunk of a car to unite with my father and brother in the U.S. This family history and life beginning set the tone for my schooling journey as a Xicana scholar activist. I declared a Math major during my first year at Pomona College, but when I realized that I was one of the only women in my first math class, and most yet, of Mexican ancestry, I shifted my area of focus to the history and policy of education for Mexican Americans. In the process, I nurtured my own identity and re-awakened my voice in a land scarce of cultural diversity. I began to learn more about my heritage and ground my voice through the perspective of my family, hence my research interests.  As a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, I examine computer science education, from a sustainable perspective informed by indigenous peoples. I ask: How may ancestral knowledge systems inform the study of computer science? How might the melding of ancestral knowledge and computer science education lead to new understandings of how to nurture our young people’s positive identity formations and critical consciousness around computer science explorations? Responses to these questions have significant implications for promoting social and environmentally sustainable approaches to living, learning and dying. As digital media inextricably influences our lives, my work disrupts the common assumption that computer science alone could be a solution to most any complex problem in society. I received my Doctoral Degree in Urban Schooling from the University of California Los Angeles, where I conducted research on culturally responsive computer science education with the support of the National Science Foundation. I am the recipient of a grant awarded to a team of educational activists to “Mobilize Ancestral Knowledge, Computer Science and Student Inquiry for Health in the Schooling Community of El Sereno,” funded by UCLA Center X. I have published with Psychnology, Learning, Media and Technology, ACM Inroads, Power and Education, Theory, Culture and Society and SAGE Reference Publications. I enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, river tubing and biking with my four-legged companion, Canela.

I had never seen my Pa cry more tears of joy than the day my parents surprised us with our first PC. With a combined annual income of $20,000 for a family of five, my Mexican immigrant parents sacrificed so much to give us the best chance at an academically successful future. Shooting stars darted above us with excitement as we unpacked the computer system from the back of my father’s 1978 Chevy truck. My older brother took the lead in setting up the mysterious digital box. We all watched as he wrote the first command on the MS-DOS screen. Fast-forward two decades. My brother is a computing professional. Somewhere along the way, my sister and I developed the fear of breaking the computer if we were to punch in the wrong code or click on the wrong application, so we resorted to word processing, practicing our typing skills and playing solitaire.

Our gendered differences with the computer are not uncommon. In 2012, males represented 75 percent of the computing workforce and only 25 percent were female. The males delineated European and Asian ancestry, mostly. My brother was and is an exception. In stark contrast, only 1 percent of the females represented the cultural heritage of the Western Hemisphere. In 2013, no females took the AP Computer Science high school exam in three states: Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming.

In addition to the striking segregation of computer science, our consumerist society is addicted to digital advancement for capital gain, without considering the impacts on the environment. We are surrounded by computing technologies and marketing techniques that urge us to have the latest version of digitals. Our consumption of these technological advancements easily come without the critical consciousness about the effects of computing on our environment. The real price of our love affair with faster and more ‘efficient’ technologies is the unintended consequences of pernicious mountains of electronic waste (e-waste). Studies show that e-waste is very toxic, especially when burned or recycled in uncontrolled environments. In 2009, 2.37 million short tons (or 4,740,000,000 pounds) of e-waste were discarded into landfills.

Diversity matters. Not just to meet statistical quota, diversity of cultural worldviews matters. The complexity of the problems we face as a society require a collective approach to theory and experimentation for solving dilemmas. The movement to resolving today’s serious problems cannot rest in the hands of one cultural group, nor can our decisions be motivated by our fascination with the advancement of these tools at the cost of our environment. We must expand our collective participation in computing and responsibly address the multi-faceted problems we face by nourishing a multiplicity of worldviews in education.

In order to broaden participation in computing, we must be culturally responsive and environmentally responsible. Ancestral computing for sustainability may provide some insights, each participant with their own set of experiences and historically cultural worldviews, into collectively and responsibly addressing complex global problems.

Ancestral computing was born out of a three year research study conducted in Los Angeles. The central focus of ancestral computing is a culturally situated approach to computer science education. This approach involves establishing a relationship with the Earth through ancestral knowledge systems together with learning the multiple facets of computer science. During my three year study focused on the interdisciplinary work of computer science and MEChA in a Los Angeles high school, I found that when students made connections between their familial ancestral knowledge systems and computer science, students increased a positive sense of self as an academic contributor to knowledge production in an otherwise segregated field. In addition, motivation and academic success increased, especially among Mexican-descent females. Grounded with a critical consciousness about our positionalities over generations and our shared connections to the Earth, ancestral computing foregrounds issues of positive identity formations and responsibility to the Earth.

My parents were able to buy us a computer because of their creative problem-solving strategies. Recycling waste from the local restaurants and bars allowed for them to save their pennies to offer us a chance at engaging in advanced educational practices. In Ancient Mexico, Tlazolteotl, an effigy found in various places of Mesoamerica, is associated with eating trash, and as a result, makes the world a better place. Learning more about my ancestral knowledge practices and making a connection to my family’s behaviors around recycling, philosophy, medicines, planting and sowing, has strengthened my identity as part of a long line of creative contributors to knowledge. My passion for revealing our generational knowledges was recognized by a student-led organization, MEChA, at the high school where I was conducting research in computer science. The organization’s leaders asked me to sponsor their after-school club. My formal position at their high school was an educational researcher in the Exploring Computer Science class while my informal position was as a MEChA sponsor. My participation in both worlds led to a research study in which I asked: How might ancestral knowledge systems and computer science co-construct inquiry for environmental sustainability?

As we consider the ways in which underserved populations learn computing, we must build from a culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy. Both of these privilege academic success, critical consciousness and cultural sustainability. For example, students may be taught how to code, but they are rarely taught how to think about the effects computer production has on the overall well-being of our planet. This may help students make a connection to well-established though often overlooked historical practices of computational thinking. And in doing so, may help preserve ancestral cultural ways such as growing cacao in Mexico.

By turning to ancestral knowledges as a way to ground our observations with our local contexts, connect to the Earth, and consider long-term effects of our behaviors, we may expand our creativity so as to produce technology responsibly.

Using ancestral computing as a sustainable approach to broaden participation in computer science education feeds three birds with one hand:

  1. All students and teachers have the rare opportunity to connect to their ancestral knowledges and nurture their historically cultural connections and ethical responsibilities to the Earth;
  2. Students and teachers engage in the revitalization of lost languages/cultural knowledges;
  3. Students engage in critical thinking while they see themselves as long-time authors to knowledge, nurturing a positive identity formation as contributors  to computational thinking practices over time.      

Critical thinking around ancestral computing brings up questions like:

  • What ethical frameworks do producers consider for developing and disposing of digital technologies?
  • Who is producing digital technologies and for what purposes? At what cost to the environment?
  • How may we approach solving current complex societal problems by considering multiple historical cultural perspectives?

Our first responsibility is to the Earth, an entity that directly gives us life. Ancestral knowledge systems from all over the world generally focus on local, environmental considerations that connect our bodies to the Earth beneath us and around us, spiritually and physically. These are teachings that transcend time and space and that derive from documented ancient civilizations across the globe. Having systems of accountability for businesses and individuals about nurturing the health of the planet is crucial to the continued production of technological tools. These accountability systems account for multiple points of view as well as provide practical tools to re-establish our connections to the immediate environment we inhabit, particularly in urban settings. Educational settings provide fertile ground for ancestral computing practices to flourish and spill over to areas such as entrepreneurship, production and consumerism in a responsible and dignified manner.

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17 Responses to “Ancestral Computing for Sustainability by Cueponcaxochitl Dianna Moreno Sandoval”

  1. Donald Blumenfeld-Jones on 3/13/14 3:52 PM US/Eastern

    My initial question has to do with you dropping your math major. You write that you did this because you noticed you were the only woman and only person of Mexican descent. This does not strike me as a reason to drop the major. You could have as easily stayed with it and pioneered your presence in mathematics. You didn’t. Why? You may think this nonsensical question but it seems to me your reason for your shift to computers and culture (something which I don’t have an issue) isn’t explained and without that how can you hope to make a difference on individuals’ lives (not as members of a group but as a person with personal interests)?

  2. Cueponcaxochitl on 4/3/14 12:52 PM US/Eastern

    Hi Donald,

    Thank you for your comment. Your first question is about my experience dropping my math major as an undergraduate student at Pomona College. When I initially came to Pomona, I had a strong identity as a doer of mathematics. I was the only student in my high school who qualified to take Calculus so I took the class at the local community college because my school did not offer it. But when I went to PC, I experienced a culture shock that put into question my capacity as a knowledge producer. Most students in my classes were strikingly different than myself in terms of class, gender and cultural background. The implicit and explicit messages that I received from the elite private institution’s students and stakeholders was that my culture had no place in the ivory towers of academia. It was this experience that led me to ask different questions, that I could not explore through my mathematical studies, such as: Given PC’s geographical context, why didn’t the college reflect the demographics of its greater metropolis? Why were there so few Mexican Americans in colleges like PC? What was the relationship between U.S. immigration law and the educational attainment of these groups? How do Mexican policies contribute to poverty and low educational attainment for its citizens?

    Exploring these questions and re-entering the STEM-C space has equipped me to better serve underserved students in these fields. My work has enabled me to utilize a critical perspective in addressing issues of power while valuing cultural contributions of underserved communities as academic practices in these fields.


  3. Lanette Jimerson on 4/3/14 5:56 PM US/Eastern

    I also noted the segment of the blog in which the author details dropping out of math. My analysis was on the return to mathematics through the research work on ancestral computing and the impact of the program at the high school, which drew in more female students. Although cursory I am highlighting the author’s return to the initial issue with a deepened understanding of the cultural connections to mathematics (the undergirding of computer science).

    I now ponder the qualities and characteristics of ancestral knowledge of other cultural/ethnic groups. How might the conversation and a need to care for the Earth demonstrate the urgency to redefine talent and our goals as a consumerist society?

  4. Suzanne Kim Schaefer, Ph.D. on 4/3/14 11:12 PM US/Eastern

    This is work that will help improve computer science which has had the myopic binary point of view brought about by a focus on 0s and 1s. Computing is beginning to recognize the value of interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving. However, these approaches have been limited to the more mundane mixtures such as drawing on findings of ‘modern’ sciences, for example, human eye, hand, finger, arm movements and how these might inform robotics, display design, etc. In addition, there are some recent efforts to address the preponderance of male, anglo, computer scientists usually from wealthy, industrialized nations. Little, if any, attention has been given to how and what might be learned from the ‘ancients’. This is not to say that there are no efforts to deal with pollution, exclusion, arrogance; just that there can be so much more done by honoring and likely incorporating ‘ancient’ knowledges. As a computer scientist, I look forward to more of what comes of “Ancestral Computing for Sustainability”

  5. Donald Blumenfeld-Jones on 4/7/14 7:58 PM US/Eastern

    I find these answers simply detailed repetitions of the original post. You say you had different questions after your experience at Pomona. That does not mean you have to pursue those questions. You found them of greater interest to you than the questions of mathematics. My question is: why? Allow me to suggest some perspectives. One, imagine you had stayed with mathematics and been very successful in it. Wouldn’t that have sent a strong message to your community that “we too can succeed in areas we were told we couldn’t”? It seems to me this would have done a great deal of good. So your new questions doesn’t seem to make sense as a reason for leaving. Two, in what ways are you changing STEM? Are you bringing you changing not just the demographics of who is in STEM but something of greater substance? Three, returning to my first observation of you staying with mathematics, perhaps you would have found that, based on what Bourdieu terms your habitus, you might have brought previously unseen resources to mathematics that might have had a powerful effect on the practice of mathematics. There is the feminist movement that suggests women do science differently from men as a parallel notion. I am not telling you that you made a bad choice or the wrong choice. I’m suggesting your choice wasn’t just based on your new questions which are only a matter of access. There’s something in mathematics that didn’t interest you enough to stay. There was a way of doing mathematics that didn’t coincide with how you think intellectually. This is more than just feeling lonely. It’s perhaps perceiving a different way of perceiving you couldn’t seem to leverage in mathematics. These are speculative notions but I hope you see that your ostensible reasons may be hiding something of significance. The last commentator alludes to some of what I’m suggesting. I want us all to become much more realistic about our motives and how they may be driven by hidden ideologies of which we are not aware.

  6. Suzanne Kim Schaefer, Ph.D. on 4/12/14 2:19 PM US/Eastern

    Donald, I am always curious about the pathways that bring people to the place that they occupy at the moment. You speak as one who has personal experience with this process of ferreting out hidden significance and how they may be driven by hidden ideologies. Might you be wiling to share a personal example of this endeavor?

  7. Cueponcaxochitl on 4/12/14 3:28 PM US/Eastern

    After spending some time reflecting on your response, I begin my comment with an agreement to the last statement you posed about the possible unknown motives of researchers. Publishing is one way to engage in the process of reflecting on the “invisible knapsacks” we each carry as we potentially share our work with others who may not understand our perspective. Unpacking our biases, as Peggy McIntosh points out in her work on White privilege, can serve the greater good of our research and practice. And in the spirit of pointing to biases we did not know we had, Donald, how have you addressed the process of critically reflecting on your unaware motivations in your responses and by extension, in your work? I see our conversation as a two-way dialogue that offers us both the opportunity to explore our positionalities in the work we do on a daily basis.

    About your questions, the issue we are both raising is, at the root, about the epistemological standpoint of mathematics, and by extension, computer science. What am I doing to change STEM? I am working towards that epistemological shift in STEM fields, particularly computer science. For example, I have influenced (and continue to) curriculum design for high school students to draw on cultural knowledge as an asset-based approach to learning, including teacher development. But this is not a comment about credentials. Bourdieu also describes the fields of power as an explicit component in our habitus, and promotes a dialogical exposition of power relations.

    I welcome a meeting in person to further discuss these topics. A reader let me know that we share the same campus.

  8. Melanie Bertrand on 5/1/14 11:29 AM US/Eastern


    Previous posts have focused on the motives for your previous choices related to the math field. As Critical Race Theory reminds us, white folks, such as me, have not had the lived experiences of structural and interpersonal racism. (Indeed, we benefit from it.) For this reason, I am not in a position to question your motives, and instead try my best to understand the alienation of being the only woman of Mexican ancestry in a math class. I’d like to refocus attention to the ground-breaking ideas that are central to the blog post and your work. Your work is unique in that it not only considers cultural and gender access issues in computing, but also reframes the very nature of what computing means, grounding it in indigenous knowledge systems. This approach has the potential to revolutionize the computer science field by diversifying the field in two important ways.

  9. Cueponcaxochitl on 5/10/14 12:26 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for your comment, Mel.

    I just finished teaching a doctoral course on decolonizing research methods. I learned so much. One of my students shared this Huffington Post article with us entitled, “Knowledge from the perspective of Mayan Ixil People”. It is relevant to some aspects of Ancestral Computing for Sustainability in that it highlights ancestral knowledge systems, while considering epistemicide. Tobias Roberts shares the earth sustainable methods Ixil peoples privilege at their university. Computing approaches might not situate production in local-contexts. Examples of challenges faced by the Mayan Ixil peoples require an intimate knowledge of their local context in order to produce complex solutions to their challenges.


  10. Ron Eglash on 5/12/14 11:26 PM US/Eastern

    Cueponcaxochitl can you say more (perhaps in a new blog post?) about the experiences you have had with underrepresented students using these methods? For example some critics say that if we are using an instrumental approach — we tell the kids “computing and math are worth the time and effort because they allow you to do XYZ” — we are essentially telling the kids that math and computing are not worthy of interest on their own. I ask the question in part because I notice the kids we work with occasionally do “pure math” investigations with cultural computing (see for example http://csdt.rpi.edu/african/CORNROW_CURVES/teaching/ark04/michaelspiral.htm) but I have absolutely no idea how to predict that, or even how to encourage it.

  11. Lynn M Brysacz on 6/6/14 10:49 AM US/Eastern

    Thank you for your work in this area and for sharing the back story of how you arrived at a desire to study how awareness and integration of ancestral knowledge might positively influence computer science education and ultimately the quality of life on this planet. I share your concern over how U.S. consumption of the latest technology leads to toxic waste and devastation in other countries. If you are not familiar with the work of Annie Leonard, you may want to check this out: http://storyofstuff.org/

  12. Cueponcaxochitl on 6/10/14 3:14 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for your question, Ron. I thought about how to respond for a few days and finally arrived at this:

    You will find the longer version of my response in the book I am writing about my three years of study in this area. The medium version in the third piece I reference below and my shortest version of the story here:

    Doing math, as Danny Martin (2009) suggests, does not happen in isolation. When doing math for liberation, underserved students connect to meaningful participation. Your work with Culturally Situated Design Tools (CDST) helped some of my students make connections between their ancestral knowledge systems and computing, briefly, and I would say, barely touching the surface. If we had more time, we could have explored other examples of connecting ancestral knowledge systems with computing. For example, we could have looked at how calculations of time are socially constructed, and differ across historical cultural practices.

    These social underpinnings (constructions of time, architectural design, robotic design) cannot be separated from the single act of “pure” computing, because it does not exist in a vacuum. Computing for liberation gives students a reason, an initial familiarity grounded in what they know best, to reach individual (and collective) understanding. After making the connections between ancestral knowledges (weaving) and computing (visualizing data, modeling and design) in the unit where we used CDSTs, a few students continued the connections in other units, in particular the data analysis unit in which one student created her final presentation using programming and storytelling to deliver a strong message to her community (paraphrasing): “Why don’t we turn to our ancestral foodways as medicinal practices!?”

    So computer science learning served to create artifacts that delivered a meaningful message of inspiration. In tandem to the learning in the computer science classroom, teachers and students in other classrooms and after school organizations transformed an abandoned lot on the high school campus to create a community garden, The People’s Garden.

    Thank you for reading.

    Martin, D. B. (2009). Mathematics teaching, learning, and liberation in the lives of black children. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Moreno Sandoval, C. D. (forthcoming). Ancestral Knowledge Meets Computer Science Education: Environmental Change in Community. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Ryoo, J., Margolis, J., Lee, C., Moreno Sandoval, C. D., and Goode, J. (2013). Democratizing computer
    science knowledge: Transforming the face of computer science through public high school
    education. Learning, Media and Technology, 38(1), 1-21.

  13. Cueponcaxochitl on 6/10/14 3:56 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for your comment, Lynn, and for sharing The Story of Stuff. Annie Leonard’s work reminds me of the readings we are digesting in class about neoliberal policies affecting educational institutions and how these policies point to consumerism in multiple aspects (e.g. shoes AND schools, think of the movement to privatize education, corporate charter schools).

    I also think about how other societies might have looked at waste management, over time. For example, see http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/the-aztecs-of-mexico-a-zero-waste-society on how the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan disposed of excess waste in chinampas, for instance. Of course, our context is very different today, but some of those philosophical underpinnings are still applicable. And I believe, people like my parents, still hold sacred the act of recycling- not just for practical uses (to this day, recycling helps pay for my family’s livelihood), but for reasons that our ancestral memory motivates. Our interdependence with the earth our mother and sky our father are old, old relationships. Thank you for reading. See you soon.

  14. Santiago Andres Garcia on 10/13/14 1:06 AM US/Eastern

    Cueponcaxochitl, thank you for your presence online and for your contributions to the ASU community, and East Los as well! As you are aware, I recently published my first paper on the sustainability of recycled materials in a suburban context, specifically old wood, stone, and paint. Here is the link to the paper.


    Your ancestral computing was the driving force behind my household building sustainability (HBS) model – a tool that asks common folk/builders/homeowners to take a step back, think, and compute how to best use building materials that otherwise would be tossed in dumpsters. The paper I felt was necessary to write, and although it is based on my own experiences, I know that other city and suburban households are currently faced with the challenge of waste management. I am of the belief that matters of sustainability must be rooted at the household level. Here is what I wrote in a snap shot:

    As a thought tool in sustainable development, AC challenges us to ask “how technology is being built, where computers are made, and how they are disposed of” (Moreno Sandoval, personal communication, May 19, 2014). When AC works in conjunction with HBS, reclaimed building materials compete for a chance to strengthen and retrofit a particular building task or project. This is the relating and measuring aspect of sustainability in the household, the computing — the solving of complex social problems that Moreno Sandoval (2013:92) refers too.

    Other than that, I have no critique of your work. I am a practical person and when I was reading your paper on Ancestral Computing, I was looking for something I could pass on to my students, not deconstruct, to help me build the HBS model.



  15. Cueponcaxochitl on 10/15/14 4:01 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for your comments, Santiago.

    I am glad to see that you are embodying Ancestral Computing for sustainability in your own home. This approach follows the Zapatista model of theorizing and participating in the world by starting to build from our own backyards, literally and figuratively.

    I look forward to hearing more about how your students build on our work!


  16. My journey around the world in 16 days: A spiritual and academic venture | Xicanna's Blog on 11/16/14 11:15 PM US/Eastern

    […] of my trip is threefold: 1) to learn from others at two conferences, 2) to share my research on ancestral computing for sustainability, and 3) to exchange with the land, peoples, star […]

  17. Kelly Fyfe on 1/10/15 4:29 AM US/Eastern

    Good article. I certainly love this website. Continue the good work!. I have found following MCQ is really helpfull for CSE student http://gatecseit.in/computer-science-mcq-2/algorithm/

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