Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Meet the High School Girls Who Had to Take CS

There's an article from Betabeat making its rounds in the women in tech community: Eight Real Tales of Learning Computer Science as a High School Girl.  I found it quite interesting because the girls interviewed hit on many of the major talking points when it comes to this issue.

Girl and machine
Girl and machine / lut4rp

Girls don't know what computer science is really about.  I experience this first hand time and time again in my own workshops and courses.  Here are some the things the Stuy (Stuyvesant High School) girls said:
  • "I didn't know what computer science really entailed until Stuy."
  • "What took me a while to realize, and what Intro eventually taught me, was that computer science is much more creative than I expected--it's not just crunching numbers--and this problem solving was something I enjoyed." 
  • "...before the Intro course, I had never considered entering a profession that was not humanities-based... Now that I know about the potenial [sic] of comp sci, I am considering taking it in college."
  • "...AP CS was not what I had imagined. What I had glimpsed on that first day and would begin to understand as the weeks wore on wasn't the pretty, interface-based language of Netlogo—it was grittier, uglier, and so much more interesting"
There is a strong stereotype of computer science being for (nerdy) boys.  It's not easy to dispel that myth without giving CS a try.
  • "Before taking the mandated Intro class last year, when I heard 'computer science,' I pictured nerdy boys, who turned into nerdy bearded men, slouched over huge computers and click-clacking out codes that meant nothing to me." 
  • "I entered my intro course clueless and under the impression that computer science was for boys."
  • "The clearly enforced stereotypes of childhood have long-term effects—as girls, we are not expected to know how to write code, or have any sort of passion for computer science. Even the idea of a math-science person vs. a humanities person is often applied to boys vs. girls."
It's really easy to feel like you're the odd one out.  But a welcoming environment and good teachers can help mitigate this.
  • "Stuy has an extremely encouraging environment, and in an AP Comp Sci class of 30 or so, there are still only six or seven girls. Last term, most of us were all sitting together in one part of the room, so there was this distinct separation."
  • "As far as being a girl in the field, I didn't even really notice the difference between women and men in the tech field while at Stuy, because the department makes it so comfortable and commonplace for young women to program."
  • "The majority of the time when I mention that I am interested in computer science, people tend to be surprised, or even disgusted! One girl's immediate reaction was to say 'ew.'"
  • "It's something that is impossible not to notice and it's certainly something that intimidated me for the first few weeks, but it honestly isn't a big deal. Our teacher doesn't acknowledge it and niether do my classmates, so gender divisions within the Stuyvesant CS family has become something of a non-issue."
  • "Our teacher, Mike Zamansky, provides an open, good-humored, and gender neutral social environment that has encouraged many of us to stay a part of the 'CS Family' for the rest of our time at Stuyvesant."
Many people don't see computer science for what it can do, but rather focus on the tools.  The tools of CS, such as programming and the machine itself, tend to appeal more to a certain demographic of guys.
  • "Comp sci, as I have found in my classes at Stuy, is a medium for expression, a place for creation and creativity."
  • "And writing a program is almost like writing a story (cheesy analogy, I know). There are many ways you can structure it but you have to find the best way, and then when you're done you have a product that actually does something and you created it.
I love that this high school makes its introductory computer science class mandatory for everyone.  It won't make all women want to continue with CS (nor should that be the goal), but over time, perhaps it will help hook those who would have loved it but never thought to give it a try.


AGradStudent said...

These quotes echo many of my feelings along the way. As a girl growing up I loved problem solving, and, looking back, I did many things (from age 5 on) that should have made someone suggest I look at CS. Nobody did until my Intro programming (I was taking it for Econ research purposes) professor my sophomore year of college. I am so glad she forced me to take the next class (and the next...). I'm in a CS PhD program now and couldn't be happier! It's great to see that people are realizing that early intervention is key!!

Gail Carmichael said...

What a great story! If you'd be interested in sharing how you got into CS (anonymously or not), I'd love to post your story to the blog! :)

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