What one school is doing to get girls interested in computer science

Lana Yager teaches an all-girls computer programming class at Omaha South High Magnet School (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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March 11, 2016 - 7:38am

Girls are drastically underrepresented in high school computer classes. But a teacher who understands some of the reasons first-hand is trying a different approach.


It’s a late morning introduction to computer programming class Omaha South High School, a magnet school with an information technology emphasis. Teacher Lana Yager starts the class with a couple bits of information, then her students get back to work on apps they’re creating for mobile devices. Seated in front of monitors, students are eager to show what they’re creating using a computer program.

Lana Yager spent 25 years working in IT in the business world before her second career in teaching (all photos by Mike Tobias, NET News).

 


Omaha South senior Diana Flores work on her app.

 


Omaha South senior Anabel Diaz plans to study computer programming next year in college.

 


ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

National Center for Women and Information Technology fact sheet

“Comparing Achievement Scores of Students in Gender Specific Classrooms with Students in Traditional Classrooms,” study by University of Nebraska at Kearney faculty member Max McFarland and others

"What Really Keeps Women Out of Tech," New York Times opinion piece by University of Mchigan professor Eileen Pollack

 

“My app is basically based on fitness and health,” explained senior Sandra Ortega, whose app helps with weight loss.

“I want it to be a forum where people can go and kind of just share positive messages with one another,” said senior Anabel Diaz, who surveyed students then decided to develop an app to help them fight peer pressure.

There are others. Senior Diana Flores’ app helps students fight senioritis. Sophomore Laura Ramirez is creating one to let users color for entertainment. The apps are interesting, but did the names get your attention? All 14 students in this class are girls. And that’s no accident. Yager started this all-girls section of her year-long intro to programming class last fall.

"Because a lot of girls will not even try attempting programming when they know, they just have the perception it's a guy’s thing,” Yager said. “And that's not just here, that's standard.”

It’s something Yager understands better than most. Before teaching, she spent 25 years working in computer programming, networking and IT management. Very often the only woman in a room full of men. This disparity starts early. One example: nationally, while girls account for 56 percent of all high schoolers taking Advanced Placement tests, they account for just 19 percent of students taking the AP computer science test. Yager saw the same thing in her computer science classes at South, with a sometimes intimidating environment for the two or three girls in the room.

“Boys have been raised and especially kids that are into computers, they're very often told how smart they are,” Yager said. “Whether that's true or not, they've been told that, and they really bring that into the classroom very often and it overflows. And the girls know these kids think they're the best.”

“They say that according to statistics, by the time girls are in third grade, they have it, parents, teachers, even counselors have in their mind that girls aren't good at math. Aren't good at computer science. Aren’t good at science,” Yager added. “That's not true. But that is the perception.”

Yager thought offering an introductory programming class just for girls would help. The school backed her idea, and she went out recruiting, selling career opportunities and a comfortable place for girls who were mostly new to the subject.

Yager said what they’re learning here is the same as her co-ed classes. Sometimes how they do it varies; making jewelry with black and white beads to learn binary code, for example. Yager said the big difference is the environment.

“I wanted to give girls an opportunity to soar,” Yager said. “And where they felt they could fail. They could try. They could ask questions and not feel stupid or not feel as if everybody else understands what I'm doing but I'm new at this and I have no clue.”

“I overheard one of the young ladies saying, ‘this classroom’s safe,’” Yager recalled. “I think every teacher wants a student to feel that way.”

“I thought it was nice,” said Sarah Mathiasen, a senior who’s taken several computer science classes at South. “Because being in the other two programming classes I was in, I was really uncomfortable with the guys there because they always acted like they knew more than I did and made me feel unintelligent.”

“I just feel more confident being in a class with all girls,” Diaz said. “It's definitely a safer environment. I feel like a lot of us are more motivated to share ideas, and not feel scared of judgement. Since we're all females here we kind of have a better understanding of one another. I definitely see as working more as a group. We’re all discussing with each other and kind of sharing ideas.”

“I'm more comfortable if there's other girls with me, than boys, because I didn’t like the thought of like being the only one there,” Ramirez said.

It’s possible this is the only class like this in Nebraska. In general, experts say the single-gender class concept is uncommon but not unheard of nationally; and it has supporters and critics. The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, pans single-sex education programs as based on “junk science” and “disturbing gender stereotypes.”

“There have been pushes for it through the decades but most of them have been met by critiques,” said Justin Olmanson, an assistant professor of instructional technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Because it's a way of segregating and separating, and usually it's another layer of gender coding. You know society gives messages to people that they're supposed to either be, they're either boys or there are girls, and that means different things. It has impacts on how they should act and it impacts how society treats them. So much of the critique of having all-boys or all-girls (classes) is that it just entrenches those stereotypes, and creates a mechanism for that to perpetuate.”

Olmanson added that an upside could be more space for girls to talk. “So here you remove a lot of maybe what might be a male dominated kind of atmosphere,” he said. “Then there's more space for others to talk and interact. Yes, I think it can be a useful and positive thing. Especially if there's that opportunity to explicitly ‘unpack’ what are some of the issues that are connected.”

“It's a debate that has never been solved,” said Martonia Gaskill, assistant professor of education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “The research is not strong, cannot prove, but some people have strong opinions about what's best, and what are the benefits and the pros and cons of having a single gender classrooms.”

“I don't think there is strong evidence that proves that single sex classrooms (is) the way to go, is beneficial, it improves learning,” Gaskill said, but added that “some kinds of single sex programs produce more positive results for some students. For example preference, interest in computer science, math and science among girls. So having some kind of intervention just to help them to get interested in certain areas with subject might be quite helpful for that matter.”

Yager says there are already positive outcomes from the first year of her class.

“I have three girls who actually want to study computer science as a result of this,” Yager said. “And not one of them had done anything with programming prior to this class. So that's pretty good success in my opinion.”

“I never thought about technology honestly,” Flores said. “Nobody had ever told me anything about IT or anything of that sort. I decided why not try it and I’ve fallen in love with this class. I know how to code. I know various types of languages for coding and this is honestly, I plan on continuing this.”

Flores hopes now to pursue a college degree and eventual career in computer science, and maybe help change the gender disparity in this rapidly growing field.

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