By James Hellegaard

3High school computer science classes are not just for geeky boys. They’re for everybody.

That’s the message from high school teachers who gathered for a three-day Tapestry Workshop at Florida International University last week to share strategies and ideas to attract more and diverse students, particularly girls, to their computer science classes.

While career opportunities are on the rise in computing and information technology, the representation of women in these areas, which was already small, is actually on the decline. This was said by Debra Davis, a faculty associate in the National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Center for Advanced Knowledge Enablement in FIU’s School of Computing and Information Sciences (SCIS).

That’s a detriment not only to women but also to society and computing in general, said Davis, whose background is in computer science and cognitive psychology.

“To really get more women in technology we need to start at a younger age with girls and let them learn what it is really about and also make it clear to them that yes, this is something they can do,” Davis said.

“If you look at a lot of stereotypes in computer science, you think of this nerdy little male, who’s skinny and has no social skills. But that’s just not the reality,” she continued. “We want girls to know that we are just like them. The reality is that we really need people from different backgrounds, different genders, different cultures, to really bring a very rich body of knowledge and experience to help us create better computing products.”

Maria Klawe, the keynote speaker at a workshop, stated that the primary challenge in recruiting girls into fields such as computer science, physics, and engineering is the negative image they have of these areas. Maria Klawe is the president of Harvey Mudd College and a former dean of engineering at Princeton University.

Klawe, a well-known personality for successfully increasing enrollments of women in engineering and computer science, believes that coding is often perceived as dull and uninteresting, and only anti-social people would find it engaging. However, once people get involved in it and realize how much fun it actually is and how many possibilities it offers, they tend to get hooked. That’s when coding gains traction and becomes more popular.

Lisa Milenkovic, a supervisor for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in Broward County Public Schools, attended and presented at a workshop. She has heard stories about parents and guidance counselors who believe that computer science is only for boys. As a result, they often steer girls to different career paths. Lisa, who is a former chemist, mentioned that most schools do not have enough time in their core schedule to incorporate separate courses for math, science, and computer science.

“Recently, someone shared their idea with me about incorporating computing tools, programming, computational thinking, and algorithmic thinking into math and science lessons. The idea is to train elementary and middle school teachers to use these tools to make learning more interactive and engaging for students. For instance, instead of using traditional teaching aids like PowerPoint presentations, teachers can use games to help students learn better.”

Hui Lu is a teacher of mathematics and computer science at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, NY. She recently attended a workshop where she learned effective strategies to recruit more girls into her classes. This is an area where Hui focuses a lot of her effort, and she found the workshop to be helpful in achieving her goals.

“Last year I just had three girls in my computer science classes, but this coming year I will probably have more than 10,” she said. “I think it’s important for them. The computer is not just for programming. That’s why I tell them, just try it and you can use it anywhere in the future.”

Jim Cohoon and his wife Joanne Cohoon are both associate professors at the University of Virginia. Jim is a computer science professor, while Joanne teaches in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society. They co-founded the Tapestry Workshops, which have taken place in approximately 20 colleges and universities across the United States within the past two years.

The workshops are funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation. FIU was selected as the location for the recent workshop, which was the first of its kind in Florida. One of the reasons for this decision was the university’s ongoing outreach efforts with local schools. These include workshops with STEM teachers, as well as providing talented high school students in Miami-Dade and Broward counties with opportunities to participate.

Joanne Cohoon says the workshop focuses on ways to make computer science more interesting to high school students, the career opportunities in this field, how to avoid stereotype threats, and developing recruiting messages. She said 85 percent of the all the high school teachers who participate in the workshops report back a year or more later that they have both recruited more students and recruited more female students into computing.

“Computing has been focused sort of on a narrow part of our high school population,” she said. “What we want to do is broaden the appeal so that many, many more students come into computing and feel at home and have the opportunities that computing offers.”

Giri Narasimhan, who serves as a professor and associate dean of research and graduate studies at FIU’s College of Engineering & Computing, was one of the organizers of a workshop. According to Narasimhan, FIU’s outreach programs for local students and teachers, combined with the school’s location and the demographics of South Florida, make it an attractive destination for such events. The workshop attracted not only teachers from the local area but also from other parts of Florida and the rest of the country.

Last year, Florida International University (FIU) partnered with Miami-Dade Public Schools to provide a one-week training workshop for STEM teachers. In earlier months this year, Narasimhan and Kip Irvine, who is a senior instructor in the School of Computing and Information Sciences (SCIS), conducted a series of three advanced programming and problem-solving workshops for talented high school students from Miami-Dade and Broward counties. In June, Narasimhan, Irvine, Davis, Milenkovic, and Cristy Charters, a computer science teacher in Miami-Dade Public Schools, collaborated to organize a two-week workshop for STEM teachers from Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The workshop was aimed at teaching computational thinking, algorithms, and programming.

“The fact that the School of Computing and Information Sciences has put in a lot of effort along these lines is very critical,” Narasimhan said. “Our efforts with the programming team, with training high school teachers, with training and mentoring high school students, all of these have come together to make this an excellent opportunity for Tapestry to have a huge impact.”