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Programming against the patriarchy

Female scientist jumping up and down next to text stating that women can code.
Female scientist jumping up and down next to text stating that women can code.

Chahak Gupta trudged into the oppressive and muggy air of the Solon Middle School library for the third time that week, noting that it smelled more strongly of mildew than usual. She sat down at a wooden table, her legs knocking against the short chair meant for a 10-year old. She felt sweat trickle down her neck as she opened up her computer and the Replit Coding screen appeared before her. She heard the first small, hesitant footsteps of a middle school girl coming towards her, and she smiled, looking up from her screen. Gupta knew there was no place she would rather be.

Over the summer of 2023, Gupta ran a programming camp for female students at Orchard Middle School teaching them the Java programming language. She was recently recognized for her work teaching students to code on a state and national level for the National Council for Women in Technology.

The National Council for Women in Technology (NCWIT) is a nationally funded nonprofit organization that encourages the participation of women in the fields of computer science and computing. It encourages young women to be change makers within their communities and encourages them to volunteer at various computer science events. The NCWIT provides scholarships, awards and professional opportunities for women to make their voices heard in fields that they are historically underrepresented in.
This year, four Solon Students were recognized for their work to encourage women in technology in Ohio. These students are Chahak Gupta, Zaynah Wahab, Hong Bao Tran Nguyen and Joy Fan. Gupta and Nguyen also received honorable mentions at the national level for their work.

Gupta believes that her work teaching younger female students how to code is what contributed to her receiving recognition. In addition to teaching a summer coding camp for female students at Orchard Middle School, she also led a separate coding camp through Hyland Software for middle school students.

“It was basically just me teaching Java to ten girls for four hours a week in the library,” Gupta said.

Gupta believes that starting coding young is important to establish equality within the field, and that giving young girls as many opportunities as possible to learn is essential for their academic growth.

“A lot of middle school boys come into high school knowing how to code because their parents encourage it, and they do hackathons, but not as many girls know about it,” Gupta said. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to learn.”

Zaynah Wahab is another student who received state recognition in the NCWIT. She has worked for her past three years at Solon High School to ensure that women have a safe space to discuss and learn about computer science.

“I used to be the public relations for GirlsWhoCode and now I am the president,” Wahab said. “It’s very fun to be near people who understand your struggle in being in more [male-dominated] fields.”

Another student who won state recognition is Hong Bao Tran Nguyen, who believes that gender equity in STEM fields will benefit STEM as a whole. She believes her award was based on her skill in the field, which she was able to hone due to Solon’s computer science program.

“The problem is that a lot of women have a lack of opportunities in STEM fields,” Nguyen said. “[Including women] brings in different perspectives. By including women and opening up opportunities, it will encourage women to reach their full potential, skills wise.”

Daniel McKeen, one of the school’s AP Computer Science teachers, initially shared applications for the NCWIT as an opportunity with students. He has continually been dedicated to ending the gender gap in computer science. Currently, the gender ratio in App Development, an advanced computer science class in the school, is 11:16 women to men, which is a shift from previous years.

“Mr. McKeen is a big advocate for women in computer science,” Gupta said. “When you look at the ratio of students [in his class] it is almost 50:50, and it used to be a lot lower because less female students were joining.”

Though computer science has been a high demand job in recent years, only 18% of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the United States are earned by women. It has been found that introductory computer science courses play a large role in discouraging women from pursuing a career in the field due to expectations and pressure from male peers. When looking at nation-wide statistics compared to the ratio of female to male students in Solon’s AP Computer Science class, the difference is apparent.

Joy Fan, a NCWIT-recognized student, thinks that McKeen’s approach to introductory courses is what makes Solon a more inclusive environment.

“I took ‘skipping intro’ over the summer which meant I was learning a bunch of code by myself, and I didn’t enjoy it that much,” Fan said. “But once I got to [AP Computer Science,] Mr. McKeen was super supportive, and he would always explain things very well. The way he talked about the assignments and assigned us bonuses and was always there to answer our questions. I was just very interested in everything he was saying.”

AP Computer Science is a different math course than typical offerings, but Fan appreciates the new ways it lets her think.

“I just love the fact that it’s like a puzzle,” Fan said. I’ve always liked creativity, and that’s how I usually think, but typically the math and STEM classes that Solon offers are very fact and rote-memorization based. I was able to use my logic a lot in computer science.”

McKeen attests to the importance of women in computer science, explaining how the benefits range for both students and the field itself.

“The more different opinions and voices you have in any sort of problem solving field, the better your solutions are going to be,” Mckeen said. “Also, they smell better.”

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