Fewer than 1 in 5 computer science graduates are women, and just about a quarter of computer scientists are women, according to Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that works to close the gender gap in computing. But, if the Durham Academy computer science program has anything to do with it, those stats are set to change soon.
DA recently earned the College Board’s AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award in recognition of at least half of all AP Computer Science students in the 2018–2019 school year identifying as female. Out of the 20,000 schools that offer AP courses, DA is among a mere 143 to be recognized for AP Comp Sci.
For computer science teacher Julian Cochran — father of three daughters — it’s been meaningful to see more of a gender balance in his classroom.
“To have those avenues open up for all students, it’s great. There's always been a focus on getting those underserved populations to take classes,” he said, noting that he also strives to increase racial diversity in DA’s computer science program.
Until the mid-2010s, most of Cochran’s class rosters included just one or two female students. As he sees it, the uptick over the past several years is due in large part to a reimagining of the ninth-grade physical education course in 2013, at the urging of former Associate Head of School Lee Hark, then Upper School director. The course now includes rotations for technology, self and community, learning habits and sustainability, in addition to PE.
“I don't know that Lee Hark knew what he was tapping into when he came up with the idea for this tech rotation thing,” Cochran said. “... You know, so many people who worked with Steve Jobs say that if he could see today what people use their smartphones for now, he would be shocked. And maybe Lee might say the same thing about this course. But I would give him huge kudos. It's just opened the pathway to get kids interested in STEM.”
In the ninth-grade tech rotation, students learn about rules and expectations for the Upper School’s 1:1 laptop program, as well as technology management tools. But Cochran also uses it as an opportunity to help identify students who might have a particular aptitude for coding through a logic test called the Bebras Computing Challenge, and to give all students a little taste of computer programming through approachable Hour of Code exercises.
“Really what it does, is it exposes students who are in those underserved populations to, hey, have you ever thought about taking a computer science class? And most of the time, those students will be like, no, that's like for geeky white males — like you!” he said. “And so it's allowed me to engage different communities in those conversations.”
But the path to increased diversity isn’t a direct one — it traces through peaks and valleys along the way. This year’s AP Computer Science class again has more male than female students.
“But I wouldn't be surprised if we exceed that benchmark next year, based on who is talking to me about taking classes,” Cochran said. “My current Intro to Computer Science section G period is 17 kids, and about half are female students. … You know, we don't consistently go up. We go a little bit like this [gesturing up and down with his hand], but it's growing over the years.”
Senior Annie Ma is among the five girls taking AP Computer Science this year. Teachers at DA, including Cochran, do an excellent job of recognizing gender imbalances when they happen and ensuring that all students are supported and feel included in conversations, she said. But having a significant group of other girls in STEM classes makes it easier to engage.
“I think that having at least one or two other girls in the class still feels more comfortable or like you are a bit more supported. And it's not to say the guys are intentionally trying to exclude you, but it's sometimes just internally feeling that sense,” explained Ma, who is considering pursuing a minor in computer science in college next year.
Fellow senior Victoria Lawton took Intro to Computer Science, both robotics courses, and a slew of other advanced science courses, and she is a member of the DARC SIDE Upper School robotics team. She plans to study biomedical engineering in college next year, and she credits female role models at DA with helping her to discover her passion.
For one, physics and robotics teacher Leyf Peirce Starling ’99 encouraged Lawton to join the robotics team as a sophomore. And through the DARC SIDE, Lawton met a couple of senior girls who further inspired her.
“They were the only two girls on a team of like 15 or 20. And I wanted to be like them,” she said. “I think if they weren't there, then maybe that would have been harder for me, just because I wouldn't think of myself as somebody who could do it or as somebody who was even remotely interested in that just because it was never really presented as much of an option. But I'm really glad they were there because now I know what I want to do.”
The robotics program has continued to make strides in gender diversity, with the DARC SIDE now comprising 26 boys and 19 girls. And initiatives like the Girls Advancing In STEM student club are helping to create a support system.
“I think that DA does a really good job of promoting women in STEM. And I think that it's something that we're always going to be working to improve,” Lawton said. “There may be high points, and there may be low points. And that's OK. Just because, it's not all of a sudden gonna be like, all right, snap your fingers, everything is 50–50.”
Both Lawton and Ma said they hope to see more and more girls engaged in STEM in the coming years.
“Just recognize that there's so much out there that you don't know yet and there are so many opportunities that you might not realize you'll enjoy a lot,” Ma said, when asked to offer advice to younger students. “And work with your advisor, or just take classes that you might not think you're entirely interested in. And then just recognize that one bad grade on a project or one bad grade on a homework assignment doesn't necessarily reflect like your inherent abilities. It's a learning process, and it's really fun.”