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How to Get Over a Discouraging First Computer Science Experience: You Can Actually Do it

I recently completed a summer job where I was a teaching assistant for a rigorous coding bootcamp. Young middle school and high school girls with no prior computer science experience were taught how to create web applications. As you can imagine, it was extremely challenging. Even with amazing computer science teachers it would have been challenging, but throw in teachers with no computer science background and you get utter chaos and mayhem.

Don’t get me wrong, with a positive attitude and great motivation, teachers with little to no computer science background can succeed in teaching the fundamentals; I know it’s possible because I worked with people who have shown me that it is. What is unfortunate is the lack of this passion to learn material or simple underestimation of the difficulty to teach it that is often the case in classes like these.

That got me thinking about my old computer science teachers in high school and experiences. Let me preface this with the fact that I’m not trying to sound bitter because I genuinely believe I learned from these experiences and became a stronger programmer because of it. I’m trying to speak my truth and hope that another person who reads this will be able to relate and find comfort in what I have to say.

I took my first introduction to computer science class when I was 13 years old. My teacher had industry experience and a few years of teaching the course under his belt, so that sounds like the class would be set up for success. Unfortunately, a lot of the class was just students sitting straight forward, eyes glued to their screens, individually working on labs. The teacher was a nice man but lacked the passion to teach. He was notorious for sitting in the back of class and only walked around when questions were asked. I know what you’re thinking; why didn’t you just ask questions then? Well, I was terrified that’s why. I was always a good student; I did my homework, never cheated on tests, listened in class, and I was lucky enough that my work ethic made learning material like Algebra and U.S. History come easy. That being said, I was terrible at asking questions because I never really had to before. And when I was sitting there at my computer screen typing what seemed like gibberish into some text box (which I later discovered was a terminal), I kept thinking to myself, “So what?”. When I learned that numbers were suddenly being referred to as integers, I thought, “So what?”. When I came across many error messages, I would become overwhelmed (and some may call it being in my “panic zone”). I would look around me and see everyone furiously typing and just assume that they understood what was going on and I just didn’t; in hindsight, I can say that I’m sure they were just as lost as I was and just didn’t want to ask questions for similar reasons as me. It didn’t help that I was one of the few girls in the class and my proud nature (one that I am not actually proud of) didn’t want my confusion to be associated with weakness and my gender.

You can guess that I didn’t enjoy that class. At the end of the school year, I was feeling just as lost in what direction I wanted to go in for my future career; but you could be sure that it wasn’t going to be computer science. I didn’t touch code for another 3 years until I was 16 years old. My older sister encouraged me to apply for an all-girls summer coding bootcamp. At this point in time, I still had no clue what I wanted to do. I was interested in psychology and microeconomics, but I didn’t necessarily feel passionate about one subject over another. I had 3 long years to recover from the trauma my first computer science class gave me, so I thought, “Why not!”. I applied for the camp, and to my surprise, I got in. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be a pivotal summer that would point to the direction my life would go in for the years to come.

My teachers were extremely knowledgeable in computer science and had a passion for teaching. My class size was small, about 20 other girls, and we all had little to no experience coding before. I learned terms that started to make topics from my first computer science class make more sense (“Oh that’s a terminal…” and “Oh! Integer is a data type!”). I learned more than I could ever have dreamed in a mere 2 weeks, and I gained self-confidence. It was inspiring to be surrounded by other young women interested in tech. The environment the teachers and teaching assistants fostered was supportive, collaborative, and fun. People were talking, laughing, and asking questions; it was completely different from what I had experienced when I was 13. Errors weren’t scary anymore; I was no longer feeling overwhelmed when I got stuck. My experience coding became more interactive and social. We were pair programming and working together to solve problems. I started to think… “Wait… I can actually do this.”.

My experience that summer pushed me into taking AP Computer Science my senior year of high school and applying for college with the major Computer Science. My first two computer science classes were almost complete opposites, and my first experience almost pushed me away from pursuing computer science completely. If it wasn’t for my older sister who encouraged me to reach for that summer opportunity, I don’t know if I would be studying computer science in college today.

To tie it back to last summer, I know a lot of young women have experienced the same struggle that I did when I was 13 years old; I have heard their stories and seen it firsthand as a teaching assistant. It is a real issue that our world lacks proper computer science teachers. The truth of it is, many people that study computer science would rather become engineers than teachers because of the dramatic pay difference. We can’t rely on the few computer science gems that choose to teach out of passion or “the greater good”. However, this cannot be solved overnight and I, an 18-year-old college student, as crazy as it sounds, do not have all the answers.

Although we cannot control what teachers we come across in our journey in tech, we can control our mindset and our attitude. I hope that young girls and boys who are interested in computer science remember that although it is not easy, it’s not impossible either. You’re not stupid for not being a naturally gifted coder. Just because you struggle does not mean that coding isn’t for you! We all struggle.

Sometimes it may seem discouraging because teachers are not perfect and not every learning environment is going to be a supportive one. Some teachers may lack understanding and it can cause you frustration and confusion; even with the proper industry experience, it takes more than just understanding computer science to be able to teach it effectively to people who have never seen code in their lives. Take a deep breath and remember that the internet is there to help you, there are millions of tutorials on YouTube with people who are eager to share their knowledge even if they might not have official teaching credentials. Your teachers can be strangers online, your peers, your role models, and more. A lot of learning code is practicing it yourself and taking matters into your own hands, so don’t be afraid to fail. We learn from our failures; they only make us stronger. There are millions of resources online to help you start your journey and Google is your best friend.

As for the lacking positive environment, find a group of people who are in similar stages in their journey because it means so much to have a proper support system- whether it be a study group of your friends, coding club at your high school, or an online organization. For me, I found amazing friends in college that I feel comfortable asking questions to and that I have fun with on a regular basis. Find people that you admire to inspire you; my older sisters have been huge inspirations to me and my journey. When times look tough, remember where you want to be, how you are going to get there, why it means so much to you, and push forward. Sometimes it may seem like others know so much and you know so little, trust me I’ve been there, but know that they all started knowing nothing and you can get there just like they did. Have confidence in yourself and believe that you can achieve your goals because you can.

I want beginners to understand that having a bumpy start in computer science should not be the factor that prevents you from continuing. One day you’ll look back at what once confused you and think to yourself, “Wow. I completely understand that concept now.” and you’ll get to see how far you’ve come. If you’re feeling discouraged, remember that I was in the same place that you were when I was 13 years old and so were many others. So, if you’re enrolled in your first computer science class feeling lost for whatever reason, remember that you are not alone and you will get through it.

– Justine Koa, 2019 RTC Fellow
Rewriting the Code – Empowering College Women in Tech