A Girl's First Java Class

Katy Dickinson

Recently, Lucy Sanders of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) had lunch with Sun's "Succeeding @ Sun as a Woman Engineer" (SASWE) networking group. Lucy talked about NCWIT's mission to ensure that women are fully represented in the influential world of information technology and computing. I came away from the lunch with questions about why young women aren't more fascinated by computing.

Later that night, my 18-year-old daughter was studying for her final high school exam: Java programming. She loved her Java class and wished she had more time to learn programming. Sadly, with just one semester left in high school, Jessica has run out of class slots and it is too late for her to join the Advanced Placement in Programming year-long class.

Jessica's high school required her to take introduction to computing her Freshman year. She was miserable and never wanted to take another computing class. Now as a senior, she loves her new Apple MacBook Pro laptop and wishes she had known how much fun programming can be. When she took a break from studying for the exam, I asked Jessica what made this class different and why she loved programming. Here is what she said:

  • Teachers need to be comfortable with computers. Computers are just a tool, like a pencil, not something you have to use or something that is special or different.
  • It would be good to have both men and women role models. Her high school has women math and science teachers but no women in its tech department.
  • Practical tasks, not abstract concepts, are fun. This programming class taught Jessica how to make an on-line robot walk and beep and do things.
  • Programming class should have no stigma. There should not have to be a big push to get in. It shouldn't just be the prizefighter girls who take programming and join the Robotics Club. It should be normal to take programming.
  • Some work, like learning how to write a perfect bibliographic citation, is better done by computers. Time is better spent programming the computer.
  • Computing teachers should hold themselves to a high standard and expect the students to do well. Teachers should be disappointed when their students don't work hard. (Jessica described great teachers as "battleaxe" - a good thing!)
  • Geeks get enthusiastic. Teachers who are really into it are cool, are better role models. Honest geeks do not pander to the subject or condescend to the students.
  • Talking with senior women who are succeeding in Computer Science helps.
  • Lego robotics are fun. They are good for a beginner: practical, effective, with immediate results. Show the future action potential or beginning students get discouraged.
  • Reading books like She's Such a Geek (Ed. by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders, Seal Press 2006, ISBN-10: 1580051901) helps to keep Jessica excited about computing. It's not just that she has an essay included in the book - it is being part of a group of excited girl geeks.

Some of what Jessica said reminded me of a section called "More Attention to Good Teaching" in Unlocking the Clubhouse (p.131, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, The MIT Press, 2003, ISBN-10: 0262632691). This section addressed some of the changes made by Fisher and Margolis in Carnegie Mellon's undergraduate Computer Science program:

"...good teaching is especially important to women because failures in pedagogy or in curricular integration affects women disproportionately. Our main effort in this regard was to use the teaching assignment process to put better, more experienced, and more senior teachers (note that these are not always correlated!) into the earliest courses of the curriculum, where women reported having the most distress."

In March, after we find out which colleges have accepted Jessica, I hope she will choose a school with a great undergraduate Computer Science staff. It would be sad to see all of her computing enthusiasm trashed by bad teaching.



Katy Dickinson is the Director, Business Process Architecture, for Sun Microsystems' CTO & Sun Labs organizations. She also writes a regular blog, which can be found here.