How many times is the computer whiz kid in movies and television shows a woman? In recent memory, there’s Shuri in “Black Panther,” there’s a girl with a dragon tattoo and a couple who halted and caught fire in a period drama set in the 1980s depicting the early days of Silicon Prairie in Texas. By and large, the person who cracks the code using coding is a guy.
But there are female pioneers of computer science — Dona Bailey, Annie Easley, Grace Hooper, Ada Lovelace, Marsha R. Williams among others — who paved the way for women in computer science and STEM fields while serving as role models. Like those at St. Charles High School, a school that recently earned a 2021 Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Female Diversity Award from the College Board. The award was given in recognition of expanding access for girls to the class AP Computer Science Principles and engaging them in the subject. St. Charles is one of only 760 schools to be recognized for the achievement.
AP Computer Science Principles introduces students to the foundational concepts of the field and challenges them to explore how computing and technology can impact the world. “The College Board and the industry noticed that it was dominated and represented by one gender of one race. They wanted to change that,” Terence Stone, a computer science teacher at St. Charles, said. “They want the industry to represent what the country looks like. Principles is a class for everybody. There are no prerequisites and students have the option if they want to take the AP exam or not.”
At the start of the year in Principles, students learn how to send and receive a message via computer. From there they touch on understanding machine languages, but don’t do a deep dive into that, Stone said. “We make the connection to the computer and scaffold from there to how the internet works, he said. “This makes a good connection to the students because they stay on their phones.”
St. Charles junior Nevaeh McKinney and sophomore Takai Scroggins are among the girls who are taking computer science classes and likely to continue those studies in college. For McKinney, computers are the family business. Her grandmother owns and runs a tech support company where McKinney’s father and uncles work. Or maybe she was born to figure out how things operate. “When I was little, I used to love taking things apart and putting them back together,” she said. “I just find it interesting how things work, how our phones are literally computers.” She is interested in software development and code reviews. Scroggins took computer science as a freshman and liked it. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to make my own website — I’m taking web design right now — and it’s just really interesting,” she said. “Being able to do my own thing, making a site how I want to make it.”
Both McKinney and Scroggins would like to see more females in computer science and STEM classes. “I definitely think we need more girls in those classes,” McKinney said.
“I think it’s a society that makes girls feel like they can only go so far,” Scroggins said. “And some girls don’t try to go beyond that because people make them feel like ‘This is not a girl’s job.’” That’s why representation is important, she said. “Not just [to reach] girls, but Black girls as well. People underestimate females,” Scroggins said.
McKinney would like younger girls encouraged to take computer science classes. “Girls might be told they can’t do this, but they can,” she said. “Because they are told that, they don’t try. And if you don’t try, you don’t know. “
Stone and faculty members at St. Charles pitch computer science and related clubs to students to drum up interest. “I think people from different backgrounds bring fresh ideas, different ideas. It’s important we have a diverse group of people who are making decisions and creating these things because they understand what people from their backgrounds may need,” Stone said. “I think the more diversity you have in the industry the more groundbreaking things are going to happen.”