Wanted: More Girls In High Tech

By Marjie Lambert
The Miami Herald.

After their first week of coding class, 20 high school girls taught their robots to dance to The Cupid Shuffle. Cupid chanted, “To the right to the right to the right,” and the little red robots turned right. He sang “To the left to the left to the left,” and the robots turned left. But it wasn’t the song the robot was following, it was the instructions the girls wrote out in code to match the song.

During a seven-week summer course put on by the national organization Girls Who Code and hosted by Florida International University, the students conferred with each other as they puzzled out solutions and wrote lines of code at the front of the classroom so the others could follow their logic, then in small groups, tested their results on the robots.

That high school juniors and seniors studying computers wasn’t unusual. What made this class different was that it was aimed at giving girls more confidence in what remains an overwhelmingly male, and sometimes hostile, field — one that trails engineering, medicine and most other sciences in opening career doors for young women.

Less than 20 percent of bachelor degrees in computer science are conferred on women, even though they make up 57 percent of students who earn bachelors degrees and half of the students who earn a degree in the sciences overall. That is reflected in the workforce, where only 26 percent of computer and math jobs are held by women. Educators are only now beginning to address issues that start when kids are very young.

“Have we noticed a gender gap? Absolutely,” said Cristian Carranza, a director in the Office of Academics and Transformation of Miami-Dade schools, which in the fall will begin adding computer science to classroom work for students as early as kindergarten. “We struggle with that … That has been the battle for everybody.”

Carranza recalled a Miami-Dade schools expo — a science fair — where most of the winners were girls. As he congratulated the winners, he asked what career they were interested in. Many answered law, business or other non-science vocations.

“They have aptitude, they are doing really, really well, but they are choosing career paths that don’t reflect the aptitude they show at the expo,” he said. “If they choose science, it’s usually medical. Why? I don’t know why.”

Educators are finding it’s not the coding that is difficult. It’s the combination of social factors: Girls are less likely than boys to play video and computer games, so are less familiar with computers. They don’t know the range of things — fun activities now, careers later — that can be done on computers. Boys may tell them computers and robotics and machines “aren’t for girls.”

Women account for about 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees conferred in the U.S. every year and half of the science degrees.

In most sciences, the percentage of women getting degrees has inched up or stayed about the same. But in computer sciences, the percentage of degrees awarded to women peaked in 1983-84, then dropped steadily.

That lack of diversity has prompted schools to create special programs, from kindergarten through college, to acquaint girls with computers and coding at a younger age, help them with their classroom poise and confidence and expose them to women with successful careers in computers and technology.

Hands-on work demonstrates to girls that computer coding is collaborative work and not, as Sari Kulthm, who teaches a noncredit community course in computer science at Miami Dade College, put it, “sitting at a desk coding in a small room 10 hours a day.”

Broward began adding computer studies to the curriculum last year, and Miami Dade is adding it for this year. In middle and elementary school, computers are being incorporated into math and science classes. In high schools, new computer studies classes are being added. There’s even a program in which Anna and Elsa from the movie Frozen ice skate to show younger kids about dividing circles into angles.

All students will take the classes, but the exposure to computers at a younger age is especially expected to benefit girls, said Lisa Milenkovic, the science curriculum supervisor for Broward schools.

The top three things educators can do to bring more young women into technology, said Alice Steinglass, vice president of products, engineering and marketing for code.org, are to change their perception of careers in computers, encourage positive reinforcement by family and friends, and encourage them to participate in computer classes and related extracurricular activities.

“There is a false impression that computer science is nerdy, it’s boring, and it’s something you do by yourself in a dark closet,” Steinglass said. “That is far from the truth.”

Any number of organizations and events have sprung up with plans and strategies for getting girls interested in computers.

Various foundations offer grants for classes and curriculum; organizations sponsor events intended to interest girls and other under-represented groups. Technology companies sponsor events and classes because it’s in their interest to develop a bigger pool of prospective employees. Schools sponsor computer clubs, after-school events, speakers and other activities specifically for girls.

In Girls Who Code, for example, the curriculum has been revamped to appeal to girls. They are exposed to a number of code languages, but the emphasis is on understanding the logic of coding rather than perfecting skills in any one language.

They learn about public speaking, networking, how to promote a product. Collaboration is required — even at lunch, seating is rotated so the students all get to know each other. Women in computer careers are brought in to talk about their jobs so that the girls see technology is not just for men. They visit local businesses where women are in key roles. And they learn skills by using robotics or animation or programming an MP3 player.

“This is a fun program. You’re going to be learning, but you’re going to have a lot of fun,” said Angelica Medina, Miami program manager for Girls Who Code, which has two summer sessions of 20 girls each at FIU and Miami Dade College. The classes are sponsored by Verizon.

“I think it’s really cool, all the logical concepts behind it, all the things you can do with computers,” said Claudia Loiacono, 16, who was already studying math and engineering at Maritime and Science Technology Academy (Mast Academy) in Key Biscayne, and now intends to focus more on computers.

“I never would have thought of that as a career,” she said. “The thing I’m most scared of is not having options to choose from. Computer science and math open so many doors.”

Riya Srivastava, a junior at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami, added: “It’s very neat, very logical, very mathematical. … When I do programming, it’s really fun. You can do a lot of stuff. There are a lot more fields open to me.”

Females are often told that they’re not going to be interested in computers or have fun with them, Medina said. “It’s almost as if their brain is wired that way. That’s where we come in, to rewire the brain and tell them to push aside those preconceived notions you have about computer science.”

Educators need to start exposing girls to computers when they are young, several experts said.

“We know that if we target only the high school kids, by then, many decisions have already been made,” said Carranza of Miami-Dade schools.

Milenkovic agreed. “How do you get the students to start thinking of [technology] as a job for themselves? They say if you hook the kids by the time they are 10, they can see themselves as doing that job.”

But colleges can’t ignore the situation, said Mario Eraso of FIU’s School of Computing, who said only 16 percent of FIU students who graduate in computer sciences are girls.

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