Not so much a blueprint as a recipe

In my five years of teaching computer science, addressing the gender gap has been my biggest struggle. When I was first hired to teach two high school elective computer science classes, there was a grand total of four students registered. In the years since, the computer science program has grown, reaching all 7th and 8th grade students and now approaching full enrollment in the two high school classes. Yet that first year with 25% female representation was the closest to gender parity the high school electives have ever seen.

The gender gap in computer science is an international and well-documented problem. Last year many major tech companies released demographic information about their workforces and it was confirmed, again, that women and minorities are problematically underrepresented in technical jobs. By releasing this data the companies were taking steps to address the issue, and one key factor in addressing the issue involves examining the companies’ applicant pools. But then a closer look at the demographics of the applicant pools shows that the demographics of graduates with advanced degrees in computer science are just as skewed. And so then we can look at undergraduate programs, and next to high school programs. And there I was, with never more than 2 girls in a high school computer science class at a time, feeling like a contributor to a problem that I had meant all along to address.

Well, it looks as if things will be changing next year: of the 20 students signed up to take the Computer Science 1 elective, 12 of them are female. The class somehow overshot gender parity, and I’m delighted.

And I’m also convinced that I can’t take much of the credit. Although I’ve dedicated an incredible amount of brainspace to the gender gap in my classes over the years and read lots of research, at this point I understand that there’s no blueprint to inclusivity. If you build it, they will come does not apply here. Instead it’s more like a recipe: put in healthy ingredients and allow them to work together. Here are a few of the ingredients I’ve tried:

  • Empathy. As a ballet dancer I spent a lot of time in my middle and high school years in the gender minority. I suppose this perspective was a decent place to start, but wasn’t enough.
  • Careful attention to the classroom space itself. I’ve done my best to be sensitive to the micro-aggressions that can speak from the walls, from the posters, and from the organization of the room itself that might prevent a young woman from feeling a sense of belonging.
  • No brogrammers. I want kids to be comfortable being who they are, and it’s okay to “whistle while you work” during programming sessions in my classroom, but the loudest voices are the ones who get heard. Establishing a healthy, positive culture takes constant tending.
  • More advertising. Lots of students on campus have no idea what happens in the computer science electives. The classes don’t have a gallery or perform a concert, nor do they earn departmental course credit. I’ve tried “Comp Sci Takeover Day” before spring break and final projects that use virtual reality headsets as fun ways to get the word out. In the end, the middle school classes may make the biggest impact: the opportunity to make sure that every middle school student can have a positive experience in a computer science class is profound.
  • New teaching strategies. Pair programming. Studio-based pedagogy. Lots and lots of projects. Differentiating everything. Providing more choice. Flipped instruction. More projects.
  • A new curriculum. I threw out my favorite unit and dropped a whole programming language. I fell in love with a new programming language, reimagined the course and many of its projects, and invited students to support me when I ended up teaching physics or trigonometry in class.
  • Different thinking on gender itself. Biology is not destiny.

This isn’t a checklist for achieving gender parity. In reality the demographics of next year’s class has to do with the fact that, for some reason, a few clusters of girls either didn’t see or didn’t mind the cultural stereotypes about women and computing and decided to sign up for the class. Why these girls? Why now? Why weren’t there clusters of girls signing up at any other point in the last five years? What prescriptive changes can we recommend to other high schools with computer science programs?

As I reflect on this, I think the answer will be not so much a blueprint as a recipe. (And not just because recipes are stereotypically viewed to be more feminine and blueprints masculine.) I first encountered this phrase — “not so much a blueprint as a recipe” — in Danny Hillis’s book, The Pattern on the Stone, in his discussion of the differences between artificial intelligence and human intelligence, between engineering and evolution. His language and his ideas fit here as much there. Learning is cultural, and culture isn’t easily engineered. Perhaps the best we can do is be mindful of the ingredients we are putting in, the ways that they interact, and the time that we allow them to develop.

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