Girls in Computer Science? It Adds Up.

girlscreateThe Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Lewis has the privilege this week of offering beginning Computer Science education to 22 high school girls through a program called “Girls Create with Technology”. This magnificent opportunity, which is being led by Dr. Cindy Kersey, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, was funded by a generous $25,000 grant from AT&T through their Aspire program. The grant covers four days of training this week plus several follow-up activities with the girls on weekends during the school year. Participants will be introduced to the dynamic field of Computer Science through exercises designed to teach them how to program computers, how to build and program robots, and how to communicate and secure data. It’s a wonderful opportunity for these young women, and we are honored to be the host site for it.

However, it’s also, unquestionably, a wonderful opportunity for us Computer Scientists.

When I teach my classes, I look out at rows of students that are almost 100% male. In a class of 20, for example, there might be, at most, two or three women in the class. That’s typical. It’s also quite perplexing, because it wasn’t always this way. It certainly shouldn’t ever be.

In fact, arguably the most influential people in the field of Computer Science have been women. For example, Ada Lovelace is widely considered the first “computer programmer”, because she took the mathematical insights of George Boole in regard to the algebra of logic and mechanized and automated them. In other words, she transformed mathematical knowledge from theory to implemented practice. That is the entirety of what Computer Scientists do all day long, and we have a woman to thank for showing us how to do it.

So, Ada Lovelace taught us how to program. But if we wanted to write a program that would run not just on one type of machine, but for many different kinds of machines? How could we make this computer programming task more mobile? Grace Hopper gave us the answer to that. She created the first compiler, which takes computer language instructions and transforms them into a code that the computer understands natively. Our students use compilers to build the instructions they write into useful software. Grace Hopper made this possible.

Today, women continue to shape this most dynamic of fields in amazing ways. Take, for example, Marissa Mayer. The first female Computer Scientist at Google, Marissa rose quickly through the ranks thanks to her brilliant work on Google’s search engine and search monetization algorithms. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Marissa left Google (a prospect that must have taken a great deal of courage) to take over the top spot at struggling Yahoo!. She is currently leading that company’s resurgence. Marissa Mayer is just one of several female computer scientists who shape how we live, work, and play.

Another, closer-to-home example is Dr. Dana Dominiak. Dana graduated from Lewis in 1991 with bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science and Art. She continued her studies in Computer Science, eventually earning a Ph.D. She went on to found two very successful tech companies: Webfoot Technologies, a video game developer; and Automate the World, a home and office automation design company. Dana is a shining example that this simply isn’t boys’ work.

I don’t know if there is some sort of invisible wall that deters women from studying Computer Science. I surely hope not. I do know that, in our Department, all of the people who have chosen to double-major in Mathematics and Computer Science, a rare combination of two of the most challenging majors on campus, are women. So, when young women decide that they’re in, they’re all in. Why, then, don’t more women decide simply to take the first step and join a field in which the contributions of women have been so profound?

Obviously, I hope we find an answer to this soon. As the father of a brilliant and creative ten-year-old girl with amazing self-confidence, I hope she sees no such wall and will decide to pursue this field if that is where her heart and head lead her. In the meantime, though, I think programs like this can help change attitudes and open up opportunities, if only for 22 girls at a time.

About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

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