Advancing Computer Science Education
“A few years ago, I was really into an online pictionary game. It was a simple idea; one player draws a picture while other players rush to type the correct word that represents the picture. You were told in advance how many letters were in the word, and over time a few letters would appear to help you solve it. The sooner you guessed the word, the more points you earned. Long story short, I had an epiphany about how I could increase my odds of winning. I spent hours creating a program that could help me solve each puzzle quickly. After I started using it, I won nearly every round. The game was no longer interesting but I was ecstatic about my achievement. I stopped using the program for ethical reasons, and then repeated this process with other video games. These experiences led to my decision to become a software engineer.
This happened just a couple of months into my first computer science class in high school. Most schools didn’t teach the class, so I was fortunate to have the opportunity. Without it, I don’t know when, or if, I would have started learning to code. I also learned why I was the only girl in my class. Girls and youth of color were, and still are, severely underrepresented in computer science. I didn’t want other kids to grow up without a chance to experience coding.
I joined the JCCC Civic Leadership Program with the intent of volunteering my time in computer science education and outreach programs. I volunteered at several nonprofits and at each one, I witnessed how empowering learning to code could be. I saw kids who never coded in their life create awesome video games and websites. Even kids who would seem shy at first often ended up presenting their creations with confidence and pride. I especially enjoyed seeing the students at a local “Girls Who Code” club work together on “community impact projects”, collaborative projects that help solve problems in their community. Inspired by these groups and wanting to do more, I co-founded “KC STEMinists”, a group for middle and high school girls to learn how to code as well as learn about other areas of computer science.
Through research and listening to the stories of girls and fellow mentors, I learned there were many obstacles for girls and women in STEM. One middle school girl told me she was being teased at school because of her interest in computers. She didn’t feel welcome in her coding class. A fellow mentor said she was so uncomfortable in her first high school computer club meeting, she left before it was over and never returned. Volunteers who were working in the tech industry shared stories of discrimination and harassment. I hadn’t realized how common these experiences were for women. Upon reflection, I realized that even I had experienced feeling isolated, underestimated, and downright uncomfortable.
Groups like Girls Who Code and KC STEMinists provide a safe space for girls to develop technical and soft skills while building their self-confidence. They can code and collaborate without judgement, without worrying about whether they are accepted or truly belong. The negative effects of gender roles and misconceptions of who can excel in STEM fields are still issues, but these organizations can help girls overcome these obstacles. They provide girls a better opportunity to succeed in STEM classes and careers.
Learning how to code provides numerous benefits to individual people and has great potential to benefit communities as well. Countless problems have been solved through technology and advancements continue to be made each day. When I mentor students who are learning to code, my goal is to empower them. I hope that through advocacy work and volunteering at nonprofits, I can continue to help close the tech gender gap and better equip students during a time when computer science education is lacking in schools. You can change the world with code. Everyone deserves that opportunity, and through the combined efforts of nonprofits, more students will have the opportunity.”
Lauren Stephenson is a former JCCC student and Civic Leadership Program graduate. She was a member of many clubs and organizations on campus including the Honors Program, Phi Theta Kappa, American Association of University Women, and more. We wish her the best in her future endeavors at the University of Kansas!