by Sarah Rappaport
Sarah is an educator, engineer, and lover of all things outdoors. She found her passion for computer science nearly ten years ago, and since then has learned 5+ coding languages and taught CS all over the US. She can often be found reading, knitting, and attempting to keep her growing houseplant collection alive and thriving.
Before I became a Create & Learn teacher, I taught coding at a summer camp for middle and high school girls. The camp was free, and recruited girls from across the United States who had a wide range of computer science backgrounds. While there, campers learned not only the fundamentals of computer science and web development, but also how to contextualize their own experience as young women in the tech space.
My own computer science education experience, up until college when I deliberately pursued an engineering degree, was limited to watching War Games with my parents. My high school offered only one computer science class every other year, and the school was lucky if one girl signed up. Coding was for “uber geeks,” a label I was not trying to assume myself at the time. Neither were most of my intelligent, enterprising, female friends. My experience matches the stats; the year I graduated, fewer than 20% of all CS graduates were female.
In under ten years, organizations like the one I supported at Code with Klossy have given computer science education a major face lift. My campers were split; about half signed up because they were excited about coding, and many of the rest, mostly because they admired the founder and followed her on Instagram. Some were self-proclaimed nerds, some were huge Vine fans, some loved Youtube make-up tutorials. Without fail, all of the campers were excellent coders, fast learners, and genuine young people who wanted to improve their communities through technology. There was no one single version of a female coder.
Photo credit: @annecaseyphotography
Throughout camp, we studied the principles of good design, students applying what they learned to build a website as a culminating project. We used the phrase “you are not your user” many times and saw several examples of designs that failed due to poor understanding of the user group.
One example that students felt particularly impassioned about was facial recognition: Joy Buolamwini, a doctoral student at MIT found that many AI systems failed to recognize female and non-white faces at a much higher rate than white, male faces. I was inspired to hear my students express outrage at this failure of technology, concluding that the lack of female and non-white representation at these companies was directly correlated to the failure of the AI systems.
Even at a young age, these students saw the potential they had to make a difference at tech companies, not solely as what might be referred to as the “token woman” or “token minority,” but as a person with a distinct perspective who could make products better for everyone. Seeing students realize their power is, in my experience, every teacher’s dream.
Photo credit: @annecaseyphotography
Why are computer science education programs like these so important? They not only teach that coding is truly for everyone, but also make technology and high quality resources accessible for those who want to take part. Remove the obstacles having to do with stigma, for example, and suddenly, coders don’t have to be male or white or nerdy or bros or any combination of identity markers traditionally associated with CS. Anyone with a computer can be a computer scientist. Anyone who cares, has an interest in technology, or simply wants to learn how to create rather than just consume the products they admire can change the world.
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