Not long ago, I was a high school student sitting in a classroom wondering how taking a particular class would help me in life.
Luckily, most of the courses I was taking actually complemented what I planned to study in college – computer science.
Even as a child, I was intrigued by how computers operate. I wanted to know things like how to take a computer apart, and how emails are sent and then magically appear in someone’s mailbox.
I couldn’t get enough, and all of my friends and teachers were aware of this. During the summer, my mother would let me take computer classes to feed my interest.
Today, I often wonder where I’d be if my mother didn’t provide me with the opportunity to learn about computers. What if my mother didn’t know what opportunities were out there? What if I didn’t have mentors to assist me in fulfilling my dream?
Fast forward to a recent conversation I had with a male college student who is majoring in electrical engineering. In the course of our discussion, he mentioned that he became passionate about electrical engineering during an event about combating water issues that was held at his school. The students had to work together to solve a water issue, and throughout the project he had a mentor, an electrical engineer, who helped him work on the problem.
Throughout the conversation with this smart young man, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if young women had the same opportunities in schools. What if they heard from women who look like them and work in STEM-related fields?
After all, we know women are not adequately represented in STEM and computer science fields, and yet by 2020, 60 percent of STEM jobs will be focused on computing. Currently, 74 percent of middle school girls say they are interested in STEM and CS fields, but only 0.4 percent actually end up majoring in these fields. And the statistics are even worse for African-American and Latino students.
I believe it’s time to ensure that girls are seeing, hearing from and being mentored by people who look like them working in the fields they want to pursue. And I think educators can be on the leading edge of making that happen. Here’s how:
Be intentional. As educators, we have to be intentional about providing access to opportunities. There’s a diversity divide in many STEM and CS fields, and it’s up to us to help bridge that divide. If there’s a lack of African-American and Latino women represented in these fields, we must present opportunities to them.
Become an advocate. Advocacy starts with voices of educators. To develop that voice, we must be educated on the issues within the STEM community. We’ve heard about the gender divide, but what about other underrepresented groups? Advocacy for these groups must begin in within K-12 schools, first by recognizing there’s a problem and then by collaborating on solutions. Educators can get up to speed by attending STEM-focused workshops and conferences to get a deeper understanding of how to bridge the STEM and CS gap. Then we should return to our communities and encourage stakeholders to provide training, resources and mentoring for underrepresented groups.
Focus on your community. School leaders, parents and business owners need to hear about the learning divide girls face when it comes to STEM and CS. Teachers can spread the news – and help create solutions – by establishing committees to address the issue and encouraging committee members to find places for girls to explore, build, design and express their creativity.
For example, I created a CS ambassador group made up of teachers and principals that meets a few times a year to brainstorm ways to bring CS to our district in new ways. This year, we partnered with local businesses on a STEM night during Computer Science Education Week.
And two ambassadors are starting a monthly Genius Bar where students can submit tech questions and have them answered by other students. In the future, the program will also offer physical computing sessions. You can also engage parents by inviting them to a STEM expo at your school. Sometimes parents think coding and CS are just about video games, an activity they don’t care to support during school hours. But by hosting a STEM expo or coding jam, you can dispel that myth, point to the benefits of CS, and explain how CS and coding experiences can shape students’ college or career opportunities.
Kimberly Lane Clark (@askatechnogirl) is an award-winning educator and speaker based in Texas. She coaches educators in CS integration, diversity inclusion strategies, blended learning strategies and edtech. She also serves as the city lead for black tech women in Dallas, and is the president of ISTEs Computer Science Network.