Coding is an essential skill for today’s students to learn. It can open up a world of opportunity, from developing websites and apps to succeeding in the fast-growing tech industry. Coding also teaches students important life skills, such as problem solving and critical thinking. With the ever-evolving digital landscape, coding is becoming a necessary part of any student’s educational journey. It will provide them with the skills and knowledge to succeed in the digital age, as well as the confidence to take on any challenge.
I could have written that, but I didn’t. I didn’t have to. OpenAI playground did it for me. A new world of tech-driven opportunities is opening up before us as I type (or don’t type). We have a chance to shape it to reflect the full brilliance and diversity of our country, but that won’t happen on its own.
Research shows that women are woefully underrepresented in computer science fields. Only 20% of undergraduate degrees go to women in computer science, one of the largest gender disparities in all STEM fields. Among the biggest drivers is girls under-enrolling in “pipeline courses,” largely due to stereotypes about who belongs in the field. (The importance of belonging was highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education at the launch of its first STEM initiative in over a decade, which they headlined YOU Belong in STEM.)
For young women of color, the lack of representation in computer science is even starker. Less than 1% of all CS degrees go to Latinas. Of all students who take advanced placement computer science in high school, only 4% are Latina, 2% are Black, and less than 1% are Native American.
Stephen Weatherly of the Cleveland Browns has been a professional football player for seven years, but roll the clock back to high school circa 2011, and you would have found him splitting his time between football practice and captaining his high-school robotics team, which he took all the way to the FIRST Robotics world championships. When I asked him to tell me a story of when he knew he belonged in STEM, he went right to the arena where those championships took place: “full of like-minded people with the same interest, talking the same language. It felt really good to be part of the majority, because when I grew up, the STEM lovers were a minority.” He reminisced, “There wasn’t a lot of overlap between the athlete lover and the STEM lover, so there had to be two different Stephens.”
Weatherly went to college as a mechanical engineer, with a dream to build robots for NASA. “I had a huge desire to learn about STEM,” he told me. He remembered the “weed-out classes” and “people telling you you can’t do it,” exactly those barriers that rise up in front of kids and tell them that STEM isn’t for them. “You can get past that,” he said, “but you need a big dose of passion.” His foundation is bringing STEM opportunity to kids by tackling the barriers that keep kids from STEM and sparking the passion that will help them persevere. He partners with iD Tech to offer exciting STEM classes to students who might not otherwise have access to them. Kids learn from amazing teachers about what inspires them and then get to teach it to grown-ups like Weatherly, who learned VexCode VR from a young man named Kamu. “It was great, being taught by a kid,” Weatherly recalled. “I looked at him and knew I was sitting with my future boss.” Weatherly paused. “That didn’t feel as corny saying it as it does hearing it,” he laughed.
Inspiring, diverse teachers, relevant courses, and extracurricular opportunities like those Stephen is providing are key to ending disparities in who earns CS degrees and can thrive in and contribute to the tech sector and the bold new world that’s emerging from it.
Sofia* is a 19-year-old Latina who graduated from high school in suburban Arizona. She was fortunate to be surrounded by an entire department of technology-loving female teachers in her public school. Sofia had struggled with math, so she initially thought computer science was out of the question.
“This all changed when I took the required computer programming class at my high school,” she told the unCommission STEM storytelling project. “The teacher was amazing! She was certain that anyone in her class could learn how to code regardless of their technological aptitude or mathematical capabilities.”
Sofia said having a teacher who believed in her made all the difference and is why she enrolled in higher-level computer science classes. By the end of her sophomore year, she’d fallen head over heels for coding and was tutoring other students. A group of girls at Sofia’s school decided to form the first chapter of the Computer Science Honor Society in Arizona, which put on “Girl’s Have IT Day” for girls from Title I schools to participate in a day filled with STEM activities so that they would know “there is nothing to be afraid of.”
Without these experiences, Sofia said she never would have decided to pursue computer science. The economic consequences are dire when women are not encouraged to pursue careers in computer science, since nearly one-quarter of the country’s total economic output is produced by high-tech industries, and economists predict nearly 1 million job openings in computer and information technology over the next 10 years. Computer related occupations are also among the most economically lucrative, with median salaries more than twice those for all other occupations, as the AI bot told us.
The future we want to live in will only be as vibrant and diverse as those who help build it. As evidenced by my last request of the AI bot: Write a limerick about computer science. As good as the bot is, it’s no poet. Here’s what we got:
Computer Science is such a fine art, It can help make life so much smart(er). From coding to programs and more, It’s something you should explore, As it’s a skill that’s sure to impart.
*The storyteller opted to have her story be shared anonymously.