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The Power of Outreach – Increasing Diversity in Computer Science

Concerned about the need for action as opposed to pure acknowledgement of the problem of diversity in the computer science department, I sought out two peers who inspire me to continue thinking about the CS for all movement everyday: Sarah Ganci and Izzi Hinks. Sarah, Izzi, and I are undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) for COMP110 and COMP101 at UNC Chapel Hill. Our stories share different perspectives on discovering computer science as a field, and we want to share our stories with others.

Sarah:  My first experience coding was in COMP110.  I needed a quantitative reasoning credit to fulfill a graduation requirement.  A close friend suggested that I take COMP110, a growingly popular introduction to computer science course.  Intimidated but intrigued, I decided to enroll.   I immediately fell in love with coding—the ability to make something out of nothing, the puzzle associated with debugging, the thrill of getting my code to run (cliché, I know, but you know how good it feels).  The course assignments challenged and engaged me unlike any other class assignment had before—I genuinely looked forward to our problem sets.  However, as much as I enjoyed COMP110, I felt intellectually behind—I felt as though it was too late for me to catch up.

Gabi: I had similar thoughts, coming into college. Because I had never programmed before, it never crossed my mind that I could pursue a degree in computer science. However, I had friends telling me that I should take this introductory course. Finally, after some convincing, I enrolled in COMP110 because 1) it was a requirement for all of the current majors I was pursuing, and 2) I was curious to see if I did have an interest in the subject.

Izzi: My mom earned a B.S. in Computer Science in the 70’s, and I grew up hearing about how she thought I’d be good at CS. Though I was unenthused about it at the time, she encouraged me to join the Academy of Information Technology program at my high school. I took my first computer science course in Visual Basic through this program, and I was admittedly hooked. I didn’t want to love it, but I did. What on earth was I going to do with this passion for such a seemingly problem-ridden field? I proceeded to take CS classes (with my primarily male counterparts) with an open mind, yet keeping my qualms with the tech industry in my back pocket.

Sarah: I didn’t think that I would apply to be a TA or take another computer science course. As much as I loved the class,  I felt less experienced than my peers.  I imagined that my fellow classmates had years of experience coding—I thought that those were the only people who could continue on in the computer science major.  I sat next to this boy who had been coding for years, knew 4 different languages, and could type faster than he could talk.  To say I was intimidated would be an understatement.

Gabi: I definitely saw a wide variety of experience levels during my first computer science course and wasn’t sure how I would enjoy the course. However, through the various problem sets and lectures, I could see that I had interest in computer science, but I was not sold on the idea of pursuing it as a major–I still felt underqualified. But my professor, Kris, told me to grab lunch with him one day and talk about what I was planning to do: as a major, over the summer, etc. And honestly, I had not been convinced that CS would be the path for me. I did know other computer scientists, but I did not grow up seeing other people who look like me working these technical jobs. But that sole question of, “have you thought about applying to be my TA?”, really got me thinking about CS as a potential major.

Izzi: In my first high school coding classes, I was uncomfortable with the thought of raising my hand or asking a question — I felt as if I had the weight of all women resting on my shoulders, and I had to represent them well.

Sarah: I was in a very similar situation. I loved the problem sets and critical thinking that COMP110 introduced me to, but I doubted my ability. Toward the end of the semester,  I also had a conversation with Kris on the way to class.  After expressing enthusiasm for what I had accomplished in COMP110 and voicing my concerns about my future in CS, he told me that I was good enough and that I shouldn’t second guess my abilities.  He then encouraged me to continue with the major and apply to become a UTA for his course.

Gabi: I was also in the mindset of applying to be a UTA after talking to Kris, but there was still more thought on my part before I became what the 110 team refers to as a ‘convert’. There was a fellow COMP 110 student who Kris had also approached to be a TA who had shared why she wanted to be a TA and it was simple: there was disruption in tech happening and she wanted to be a part of it. I was convinced to apply, and honestly many of my mentors have stemmed from that decision.

Sarah: The extra encouragement definitely had a huge impact on my decision to apply.  I decided to use the TA position as a way to investigate my interest in computer science. When I began my first semester as a TA, I was also trying to understand the CS atmosphere and community in a sea of unknowns.  In the midst of my own uncertainty, the 110 team empowered me and made me feel extremely welcomed.  Everyone on the COMP110 team was inviting, and I could tell that we all shared this passion for CS. The COMP110 team is structured such that it fosters a close-knit community–this supportive network of my peers along with the guidance of a Professor like Kris allowed me to explore computer science in a positive atmosphere.  Being a member of the team gave me the confidence to continue on in the major.

Gabi: We have very similar timelines here. During the fall of 2016, I also took my next programming course and began my first semester as a UTA. I think what I learned during that semester was that I truly enjoyed learning and seeing different perspectives with friends in my CS courses as well as understanding that many communities do form in CS courses and among the TA staff, but I felt there was an obvious lack of diversity.

Additionally, during that first semester, I gained a mentor among the TAs in COMP110, a confident woman in CS completing her last semester before taking an industry job up north. And she helped me see that there are women and people who will be there for me on this CS journey, but in order to bring about this change and introduction to diversity, I need to be that person for someone else.

Sarah:  I distinctly remember looking out into the lecture hall of my second computer science course here at Carolina and noticing a lack of people like me.  At this time, it was really encouraging to be a member of the 110 team because it is intentionally inclusive and diverse.  Being part of the 110 team made me feel that I was welcome and wanted in the computer science community as a whole.

Izzi: It wasn’t until I talked with the few other females in my classes that I realized I wasn’t alone in this way of thinking. This sparked the idea to create a club for females and other tech minorities. In the club, we explored code and discussed our experiences in CS classes, women in tech whom we admire, the causes and effects of the gender gap in CS, how we could redress the gender gap in our high school, and our futures in CS. I fell in love with my intention to empower other women via computer science.

Gabi: On that same grain, as my time on the team grew, I wanted to put more effort into extending the diversity and inclusion we felt on the team to the greater community; I instigated a diversity panel sponsored by COMP110, to show minority groups that there are people taking charge and making room for people of all backgrounds in the academic side of CS as well as industry CS. Whenever diversity is brought into a conversation when talking about fields dominated by one homogenous group, I think it is critical to discuss that if there is a lack of diversity, there is something intrinsically at fault with the organization and blame cannot be placed onto minority groups.

Sarah: Yeah I completely agree.  At this point, it is well known that there is not diversity in computer science–we see it on the news all the time.  There are not enough women in the computer science industry. I could share the many statistics that support these statements, such as the fact that only 18% of computer science graduates are women.  Acknowledgement alone is not enough. There are actionable steps that we can take. COMP110 is a case study showing the success of a course sponsored diversity initiative.

Izzi: I was extremely fortunate to have been introduced to computer science, let alone four programming languages, in high school; many schools, especially in rural areas, don’t offer a single computer science class. The opportunity to learn how to code and think differently completely changed my life path; it empowered me with tools to navigate to my goals and intentions. I didn’t understand the scale at which computer science is being used until I tried it. Once I did, I was able to find my niches in coding for social and environmental good. At this point in time, coding doesn’t fall into one’s lap as effortlessly as other subjects do, and many people don’t know to seek it out. This keeps the wonders of computer science a secret that’s unfortunately hidden from many people, of all identities and backgrounds.

Gabi: Putting a lot of work into these panels can be hard, but seeing the results and impact it has on the students who attend is more rewarding than seeing my code compile after an all-nighter. Recently, I had lunch with my mentee for COMP110 and she told me a few remarkable statements: her mom is the only black, female systems engineer at a large corporation and her long-term goal is to bring more women of color into computer science. She reminded me of when we spoke after the diversity panel. She, along with others, later told me that the panel helped her see that there is a place for her in CS, and I think similar action steps and taking the time to build an inclusive community will lead to a natural incorporation of diversity in computer science.

-Gabi Stein, 2018 RTC Fellow

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