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With Computer Science Ed. Gaining Momentum, Girls Still Well Behind


The stars may very well be aligning for proponents of K-12 computer science education.

At least that was the overarching sentiment at a panel held this morning at the Google offices here and co-hosted by the Center for American Progress. 

The event came on the heels of President Obama's announcement that his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal would include $4 billion for states and $100 million for districts to expand access to K-12 computer science. "In the new economy, computer science isn't an optional skill—it's a basic skill, right along with the three Rs,'" the president declared Jan. 30. 

While there's fairly uniform acknowledgement that Obama's proposed budget is a stretch, and not likely to be passed, many say the president's vocal commitment to computer science adds even more momentum to the cause. 

"Over the past few years we've seen an incredible groundswell in school districts, states, students, teachers, and parents trying to bring computer
science into formal education," said Cameron Wilson, the chief operating officer for Code.org, at the event today. "We're e
ncouraged to see the president join that."

Sepi Hejazi Moghadam, head of research and development for K-12 education at Google, echoed that idea. "This is the perfect convergence of so much that has been going on behind scenes," he said. "The public sector, the private sector, and so many wonderful educators are coming together on this issue."

As I wrote previously, ChicagoNew York, and San Francisco are all working toward making computer science courses available to all public school students in the coming years. And about 20 states now have policies in place that allow computer science to count as a mathematics or science credit toward high school graduation.

Fixing the Gender Gap

The event was focused in particular on increasing access to computer science for girls. 

Females continue to be severely underrepresented in both computer science courses at all levels and in the technology workforce. Ten states had fewer than 10 girls take the Advanced Placement computer science exam in 2015. 

A recent study by Google and Gallup found that boys are more confident than girls in their ability to learn computer science, and more likely to believe they'll have a job one day in which they'll use the subject. 

Ruthe Farmer, who leads strategy and partnerships at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and directs the group's K-12 Alliance, said that there's "social tension between a technical identity and a girl identity." For boys interested in computing, "there's no social cost," but girls are contending with a different set of societal expectations. 

"We're seeing this cycle of if you can't see it, you can't be it," said Moghadam, referring to the lack of social encouragement and exposure young girls get when it comes to tech. 

The panel standout was Swetha Prabakaran, a high school junior, composed well beyond her years, who founded the nonprofit Everybody Code Now!, which holds camps and workshops to teach young students to code. (Scroll up to hear an audio interview I did with Swetha after the event today.) She explained how intimidating it was to walk into her first computer science class as a freshman at her science and technology high school, and see how far ahead the boys were.

"A group of guys [talking amongst themselves] were like why did you write that Visual Basic? And I'm like, I thought this was a Java class," she said, indicating that the boys already knew several coding languages. 

Encouraging Little Ada Lovelaces

But with the support of a dedicated female teacher, and by getting involved in a talent development program for girls through NCWIT (Farmer's group), she began to see herself as a coder. "Having that encouragement—you should go to a hackathon, you should try that resource—it makes a difference when you're one of five girls in a class of 27," she said. "We need these resources to exist for younger girls, and they need to exist at a younger age."

When asked what Google and other companies can do to help get more girls interested in computer science, Swetha said "exposure and publicity" can help. 

"We see movies about [male programmers] like Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game,'" she said. "Why haven't we had a movie about Ada Lovelace?" 

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