One of the most important programs the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences at Lewis University offers is Girls Create with Technology. Dr. Cindy Howard, Associate Professor of Computer Science and a supremely innovative educator, created the program in 2015 and continues to lead it today. It is currently sponsored by generous donations from the Caterpillar Foundation, Ecolab, the PPG Foundation, and Arco Murray Construction.
Its tagline says it all: “Girls Working with Computers to Create Cool Things”. The program has offered monthly Saturday morning workshops and annual week-long summer camps to hundreds of girls in grades six through twelve. The girls have learned Python, developed web sites, built mobile apps, practiced ethical hacking, hand-crafted and programmed robots, set up networks, and – today – rebuilt computers and installed operating systems on them. The program is one of our finest success stories.
Today, less than 20% of Computer Science majors are female. This dramatic gender imbalance persists despite numerous diversity initiatives that aim to inspire females to pursue their interests in this critically important and steadily expanding field. It wasn’t always this way: in the 1980s, 40% of Computer Scientists were female.
Lots of educators and industry insiders have offered theories to explain the imbalance. They suggest the connection of “gaming culture” with computer science, unwelcoming and insensitive workplaces, and the terrible misconception that computer scientists sit in a cube and code all day as factors that work together to turn women away. Whatever the causes, as an educator who stands before classrooms that sometimes are 90% male, I find myself wondering just how isolated the two or three women in the class might feel, which suggests to me that this is a self-fulfilling problem, an imbalance sustained by the imbalance.
I also wonder if, sometimes, the more we talk about it, the more we scare females away. “Hey, this is going to be really hard, but it’s all going to be worth it.” rarely comes across as sufficiently reassuring, particularly when no one can quite nail down just why it’s going to be hard.
The Girls Create with Technology program is critical because it shows girls early, when they are still exploring their interests and considering what they want to be, just how exciting working with computing technology is. The conveniences they use everyday, they now can create. On Saturday mornings such as today, when Professor Eric Spangler, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, and a team of Computer Science students helped teach twenty participants how to take apart and reassemble desktop computers and install and configure Windows on them, girls learn how the technology they use every day works and how they, even now with the skills we just taught them, can contribute to it.
I spend most of these sessions in the background, helping when needed. That also gives me the advantage of having time to view and appreciate the girls’ sense of wonder as they discover how things work, and the pride and self-satisfaction they emote when they are able to make something work. This encourages me that the gender imbalance won’t last much longer and that soon I’ll be teaching classrooms that will be more evenly split. When a person’s interests are kindled, when they experience the joy of discovery and accomplishment in something that had been a mystery to them, I have to think this fuels a much more intense incentive to pursue an interest than the mere appeal of one good career choice among many. Perhaps that extra incentive might be enough to persuade more women to pursue a career in Computer Science, despite whatever unfortunate signals might now be turning them away.