Capitol Hill and Computer Science
Last week my high school computer science teacher, Baker Franke, and I spoke on Capitol Hill about the importance of computer science in the K-12 curriculum. Our testimony was part of the Computing in the Core initiative, which seeks to strengthen K-12 computing education as a core discipline for all 21st-century students.
I was one of the lucky ones who got started early in computing, and it has significantly affected my life for the better. I'm currently a sophmore at Brown University, studying computer science. This is the transcript of what I said on Capitol Hill.
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As an eighth-grade girl who towered a foot above the rest of my class, all I wanted to do was fit in. I refused to join math team even though I loved math, I followed my friends to malls even though I grew bored just thinking about shopping, and I listed computer science as my last choice for 8th grade electives, even though I was curious about the subject.
Luckily, the administration ignored my request and stuck me in computer science anyway. I remember calling my parents from school as soon as I found out and whining to them on the phone for half an hour about how all my friends got to do COOL things like cook and sew and act and I had to sit in front of a computer all day. How boring. Sadly, my complaints fell on deaf ears and I was forced to suck it up and go to class.
It ended up being the best accident of my life. Partly because I rocked at it. I always finished my projects early and got to spend the rest of the class period playing with colors and sound effects and sometimes even adding special features. One week everyone was supposed to make a virtual piano. By the time everyone else had gotten a working keyboard I had added a record button, a play back button and I had even figured out how to make a button that played a pre-coded song. I thought this was really cool so I ended up spending two class periods figuring out how to write Mary Had A Little Lamb and London Bridge in code. On the third day I tried to write harmonies, but that was when we moved on to the final project: game development.
At this point I had developed a vastly inflated sense of my programming ability and I felt that I was ready to do the impossible. For my final project I wanted to make Zelda. In a week. By myself. Needless to say, I completed about point-oh-five percent of the game I had originally planned on making. So even after the class ended and I had to go to home economics instead of computer science, I came back to the computer lab during lunch to try to finish the rest of my game.
However, by spring break the momentum had worn off. I was wrapped up in boys and hair and whatever else teenage girls think about… plus graduation was coming up and I had to buy a dress, and pretty soon the computer lab was just a distant memory.
Once high school started there were no real outlets for me to continue exploring computer science. There was a multimedia class, but that didn’t particularly appeal to me, and AP computer science felt like such a big jump from the baby coding I had done a few years earlier.
And who had time for computer science anyway? I had so many freshman requirements that it would have never fit into my schedule. Besides, freshman year I wanted to be a singer and sophomore year I wanted to study math. In the years when students begin to refine their interests and their senses of self I had completely forgotten about computer science.
I suppose that’s not entirely true. It was always in the back of my mind as an afterthought or a possibility. A trump card that my parents could play when they nagged me about my future. But I was scared. It wasn’t until my friend Elisabeth took the class in our sophomore year that I worked up the courage to at least think about it. Having Elisabeth there to guide me towards computer science made all the difference in the world. Even now Elisabeth reminds me that she’s the reason I got into computer science in the first place.
Taking AP Computer Science was exactly as difficult as I thought it would be. Maybe even harder. It made up three-quarters of my nightly homework and almost all of my capacity for stress. But the weird thing was that I didn’t care. I loved every painful minute of it. I loved wrestling with a problem and how I felt when I finally solved it. I loved the feeling of butterflies when I was about to learn something new and the feeling of power when I mastered it. I had spent so much of my life sitting in front of a computer. Whether I was playing games or writing papers, I already knew how to use a computer. But by taking computer science I was learning how to create.
If it weren’t for Mr. Franke I probably wouldn’t have felt that way. He made that classroom such an open and accepting environment that it was ok for the class to be hard. He made the subject interesting and enjoyable enough that it was worth all the stress. He even created an independent study for the students that wanted to continue with the subject after the AP test. I learned topics about computer science in high school that I still haven’t covered in college. I left the AP class feeling like I knew so much, but the independent study taught me that we had only covered one bit of data in the library of computer science knowledge.
It was because of Mr. Franke and my high school experience that I went into college pretty much certain that I wanted to do something with computers. Because I entered college armed with the knowledge and experience I had gained in high school, I was able to take the advanced computer science sequence at Brown. This meant that instead of being thrown into a 250-person introductory class I could place into the 40-person advanced class. It meant that instead of waiting in line for hours to ask the teaching assistants a question, I could email them personally. It meant the professor knew me by name. It meant that I could raise my hand and ask questions in class. And most importantly, it meant that I was able to jump into upper-level courses as a freshman.
Upper-level classes were filled with older, wiser students. Some had worked for Facebook, and Microsoft, and Google, others had worked for startups, and still others had started their own side projects. Because of the head start that high school computer science had given me, I, a lowly freshman, was working with these people. I was collaborating on class projects with them. I was asking them questions about applying for internships. I ate dinner with them and I pulled all nighters with them. Sometimes I even helped them with their homework. I was their equal. And this made me want to do my homework. I looked forward to all-nighters because it meant I got to spend time with my new friends. And because I enjoyed my work, I did really well in my classes. So well, in fact, that I ended up being a teacher’s assistant for my freshman algorithms class as a sophomore. I was developing relationships with my professors, learning leadership skills, and beginning to teach.
I was, and still am, one of the youngest students in most of my classes, and certainly the youngest girl. Over winter break I was choosing between interning at two of the most well-known and highly sought-after companies in the industry. There is not a chance that I would be where I am now if I had not started computer science in high school. No, not high school. Eighth grade. I learned the logic of the subject at the best possible time. I learned how to think critically and dissect problems when I was first developing interests and defining who I was. Computer science became a part of me before I was even aware of it.
The earlier we start computer science education, the better. We always say that people best learn languages when they are young. Their brains are like sponges, soaking up the syntax and the logic, the lexicon and the semantics. Computer science is a language and it should be treated like one. But in a world where Text-ese is almost as prevalent as Chinese, and laptops can fit into lunch boxes, our educational system barely acknowledges the existence of computer science. Most people don’t even consider the field as a viable option until college, and even then it’s only an option at certain schools.
Most high schools don’t offer computer science classes, and the ones that do make you jump through hoops to fit it into a schedule. I know that I had to beg my college counselor to let me drop Spanish my senior year so that I could take computer science instead. For some reason math and history and music are prioritized miles above computer science even though we spend half of our lives in front of computers. Almost every job on the planet involves technology in some way and yet we discourage teenagers from exploring computer science by not offering it in schools.
I am twenty years old and I am more confident in myself and my future than many people twice my age. In addition, I’m actually going to have a job when I graduate. I attribute so much of this confidence to computer science. It is because of computer science that I am not only comfortable sticking out, but I enjoy it. The awkward eighth-grader who just wanted to be a normal girl is now unhappy just blending in. Computer science gave me a chance to showcase my individuality. Whether it was writing songs on a virtual piano or using building a renderer using photon mapping equations, I always want to stick out. I want to be the best that I can be, and I achieve that because of my experience with high school computer science.