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Doug Bergman: STEM- No Longer an All-Boys Club

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by Doug Bergman
Expert Educator Columnist, USA

Congratulations to hundreds of girls around the country who have just been recognized by NCWIT( National Council for Women in Technology) at the national and state level for their accomplishments and participation in Computer Science. In my state of South Carolina, 5 of the 12 awards were our Porter-Gaud girls! We are very proud!

I am so honored to be part of a Computer Science program that values having females as integral members. In my first year teaching at Porter-Gaud there were exactly ZERO females in my advanced classes. I think one reason why females have not been attracted to Computer Science is because it is oftentimes seen as an all-boys club. What girl wants to be the only one on the class? I can see that. And traditionally, for whatever reason, the public face for Computer Science has been seen as predominantly male. Although if we dive deeper, we find that females have played a significant part in getting us to where we are today—they just don’t get much credit (i.e. to name a few: Radia Perlman, Fran Bilas, Helen Greiner, Lixia Zhang, Christina Amon, Anita Borg, Ada Lovelace, and Mary Lou Jepsen.) The teachers of Computer Science have tended to be male, the textbook authors tended to be male, and the curriculum tended to be written by men and driven towards the male student. All examples, sample code, projects, and stories tended to be targeted towards males. Even game design classes, hoping to attract non-techies tended to be games that were blowing things up, loud noises, fast action, and other boyish traits. And in the infancy of the “personal computer age” where Computer Science has actually become accessible to people, this is the environment we had set up for ourselves. In my days as a student at Clemson University, there were only 1 or 2 women in any of my classes. In some Computer Science programs today, that is still the case. And that bothers me. Why has this not changed?

I am so proud of the girls who have been through the Computer Science program over the course of their four years in our high school. Those girls have helped us not only develop curriculum, but also to help us breakdown stereotypes. We are excited that we are now seeing about 25-35% (at each grade level) females apply each year to be in our program. That’s great progress, but we know we still have work to do. If you look in one of our classes, you might confuse it with a typical liberal arts history or English class…it will have boys and girls of all races, interests and backgrounds—not the stereotypical make-up one might expect in Computer Science. One semester, one of the leading programmers was also the varsity cheerleader captain Carter. She was always competing with Trey, the star football running back, for “best project” honors. In another year we had Mallory, a National NCWIT Award winner, who was also our school’s poet laureate. Last year, two recognized leaders of our service program Merritt and Courtney were also two of our best Computer Science thinkers. This year, one of our top entrepreneur minds Tanner is also one of our top Computer Science minds. Not too long ago, Elizabeth was accepted into one of the top Computer Science programs in the country. Last semester in our “Shark Tank” final presentations, Amanda raised more than $10,000—the most of any student in the class. Our program has been growing each year and each year we are seeing better projects from our kids and students pushing the envelope further and further…but it is truly our girls that are making some serious noise and breaking new ground.

What are some of the things we’ve done to attract and retain female students? Well, I am not sure any one thing made the difference; I think it has to be the entire philosophical approach—you have to believe that having females in of your program is crucial. I do. First and foremost I make sure that I have a lot of guest speakers in my classes– men and (especially)women who are successful in business and technology related fields. I make sure when I talk in class that I use “she” as often as I use “he”. When I give examples using real life job titles, I make sure to use males and females equally in those roles. When we do projects, I make sure to give room for creative expression, so students can choose aspects of their projects that line up with things they value, not just things I value. I make sure my walls are full of colorful images of boys and (especially) girls, men and (especially) women of various races and from various cultures and nationalities…all doing Computer Science things. I make sure females get as much attention in class as the boys, and also that they get recognition for doing awesome things. Last year, I had a “girl corner” in class; I told them I did not necessarily like the idea of have “all-girl corner”, but they told me it would be the place in the class that got the most done. And it was! That corner became the “go-to” place when others in the class needed help. It was very cool. Nikki and Maxeen made sure that group was rock solid with their skills. Throughout the semester, we(as a class) read articles, watched news broadcasts, looked at surveys, and discussed the role of females in the future of technology globally, both as users and creators. Each week, students lead online discussions about technologies they find interesting. As a result we get to see and read about various opinions, observations, and interests of the girls in the class. Those discussions have given me incredible insight into the minds of my students.

Some of our girls were already destined to be Computer related majors in college, even without our program; and others were just wanting a powerful and unique set of skills to help distinguish them in their chosen fields and on college applications. I joke that programs like ours gives them sentences to write on their college essays that no one else in the United States can write. For example, Amanda can say, “…in my 11th grade project I wrote a couple thousand lines of code to interpret my own body’s motion in real time and have that motion reflected through my 3D avatar on-screen as I moved in front of the camera …” She was the first in our program to use the 3D avatar in her project. I was very proud!

Over the years we’ve had winners at the every level of recognition that NCWIT offers, including a national award winner, several national award runners-up, many state award winners, and many state runners-up. One of our girls missed three days of class this past fall to attend the annual Grace Hopper Conference. That’s what I’m talkin’ about! And as icing on the cake a couple years ago, I was honored to receive NCWIT’s Educator Award for our efforts encouraging females.

So, it’s working. I am not sure exactly why or how….but it is. These girls are as excited to be in our program as we are to have them. And the world needs more females in fields in which females have been underrepresented for far too long. Not really sure if it is a nurture or nature thing, but regardless, we NEED females to be leaders in the world of digital creation. The software, hardware, tools, devices, and gadgets that come on the market need some fresh and different thought processes behind them. Thank goodness for the different viewpoints, interpretations, and priorities the female mind brings to class. I know our girls are better for the experience…but I’ll also argue that our boys are better off as well—and in the end—our technology is better off.

One of the biggest problems I’ve faced in recent years is preparing students for a Computer-related major experience at the college level. Our classes are designed to recruit students into this field. It is hands-on, project-based, and does not have me in front of the class lecturing very often—it is extremely student driven. I call my classes guided “discovery-learning” environments where students are in charge of their own learning; I believe the experience they have is a deeper and more personal one—and one that might be part of their decision to continue their studies in this area. Sure we get our hard-core techy kids, but we really focus on the next group—-the ones that may never have considered Computer Science as something that was part of their plan. We work hard to set up environments that let the students find their own reasons to engage with Computer Science. We work hard to appeal to a balanced population of students, so we attract students who are equally passionate about history, music, math, English, basketball, and track & field. The problem arises when students get to the college level, they are still seeing very stereotypical Cmp Sci classrooms–not the balanced population they are used to having in our program. Part of the problem is that too many colleges are still focusing on recruiting only the top stereotypical Computer Science kids in the country—the ones who live and breathe Computer Science and always have…and I get that…but what that means is that is all they get…they miss a huge number of students who have passions in other areas such as biology, medicine, and history…but who also would love to let Computer Science be an equally exciting option for them. And it is in those fields where we need more people who think like Computer Scientists. Colleges must start to work on reaching the non-traditional student for their Computer Science programs. Too often we find students who have an engaging, hands-on, project-based experience at the high school level are NOT finding that at the college level. Traditional lecture-theory classes have to be balanced with hands-on experiences that students are attracted to and used to having. Just sitting there absorbing information as it is spoken is not going to inspire our young people to do great things. That passive experience is exactly opposite of what they experience outside of class. So, we lose those awesome kids to the other majors. I realize the mission of high school is different than the mission of college, on one hand, but on the other…I’ll argue those missions are NOT different.

We are just in the infancy of a technological digital age. We barely know where we are, much less where we are going. At our current rates, we already know that there will NOT be anywhere close to enough students of ANY gender, especially females, to fill the many roles needed in this area for the United States to be a leader.

That’s why we have to start early and let our girls experience Computer Science as part of their education earlier and not something extra-curricular. I am proud that Porter-Gaud teacher Bob Irving has every one of our middle school students learning to build and interact with robots, and creating their own interactive games/activities as they explore Compute Science topics, and learn to actually code. Even in our 5th grade classes, Julie Sessions has our kids doing Computer Science as part of her science labs.

Research indicates that around the 8th grade is where we see dramatic drop-offs in girls being part of the sciences, especially Computer Science. It is crucial that girls get a good dose of Computer Science BEFORE THEN, so they can actively choose to make it a part of their education as they move through school.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.


Doug Bergman

Computer Science Department Chair  : BLOG: www.innovativeteacher.org

“Immerse your students. Let them see it, feel it, engage with it, create something with it , struggle with it, and learn to love it. Find hands-on experiences that bring together their imagination, your passion, their passion, and their learning. Students don’t mind hard work if they connect with it.”

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