Diversity in computer science starts in classrooms – panel

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With encouragement from her parents and access to computer science courses, Swetha Prabakaran started her own adventure as a programmer – and began inspiring other girls to code.

Tackling the great gender disparity in STEM courses, researchers and advocates called for more diversity in computer science education at an event held by the Center for American Progress at Google’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The timing is apt – President Barack Obama announced Saturday that he will request $4 billion for states and $100 million for districts in the federal budget for computer science education.

In Swetha Prabakaran’s first computer science course at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Virginia, there were only five girls in a class of 27 students. She said she would become confused and stressed when she heard male classmates discussing their projects, using a programming language that she was not familiar with.

But her teachers pushed her. “That kind of encouragement makes a difference,” Prabakaran said.

Prabakaran is now the CEO of a nonprofit called Everybody Code Now. In one of its programs, called CS Chicas, the organization gathered female high school volunteers to mentor and teach middle school girls about Java.

“Seeing that kind of environment, and seeing how cool tech was, made me realize that we need these resources to exist for other girls, and they need to start at a younger age,” she said.

Social encouragement and self-confidence are key factors that can lead women to careers in computer science, as well as access to academic resources and a positive perception of the industry, according to research from Google.

Google also found that female participation has been growing since the 1970s in mathematics, chemistry, biology and all other STEM fields – except computer science. Females in computer science peaked in the 1980s at 37 percent, and went down to 18 percent in 2010.

“There is a social tension between a ‘technical identity’ and a ‘girl identity,’” Ruthe Farmer, director of the K-12 Alliance at the National Center for Women & Information Technology. “Girls have to walk into an all-male classroom, mostly male teachers, totally male environment, and they have to pull off their girlfriends being like, ‘What are you doing over there?’”

While more school district funds are going towards computer science education, Farmer has noticed that some districts confuse educational technology with computer science education – school officials spend large sums of money on technology for education, but fail to see that computer science education cannot be improved simply through facility upgrades. There is also the need for teacher training and thoughtful curricula and instruction plans.

“When [schools] are looking at the budget – ‘We spent $10 million on technology, so we have the computer science, right?’” Farmer said. “There is a disconnect in that.”

Reach the reporter at yizhu.wang@edscoop.com and follow her on Twitter @yizhuevy.

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