My Experience at SIGCSE 2019 as a High Schooler

For years now, I have kept a list of technology conferences and conventions that I wished to go to when I got older. It can be safe to say that SIGCSE was definitely high up on that list, after all its the largest CS education conference worldwide! I never thought that I would be able to attend as a high schooler much less be selected as a speaker. When I first found out that I would be a panelist on behalf of the CSforALL Accessibility Pledge Advisory Committee at SIGCSE in Minneapolis, I was super excited but also pretty terrified. From looking at the other speakers who would also be presenting, I realized that I could possibly be the youngest person at the conference. Imposter syndrome started to settle in and I was worried that my experience would be dismissed because of my age. I was scared that I would not know what to say, or how to answer others questions.

As a programmer since the age of six, I have come across plenty of people who laughed at me or thought I was not good enough because I was so young. I was terrified that SIGCSE would be the same and no one would listen to me because I was still a kid. Thank goodness my worries ended up being for nothing, and my SIGCSE experience was incredible and life-changing.

Because of classes and end-of-the-quarter tests, I was unable to go to the conference until Saturday. As the days went by before Saturday came rolling around, I grew more excited and anxious as I looked at Twitter and Instagram and saw the amazing presentations and exhibits that awaiting me in Minnesota.

Finally the day came! I could barely sleep the night before and I spent so much time practicing how I would introduce myself. I went down to the lobby of the Hyatt Regency and got my name tag. I think anyone at the conference can agree with me that the name tags are so cool! You can add different ribbons that represent your experience in your career and time at SIGCSE. I got ribbons for being a student, first-time attendee, and of course, a presenter!

Here is me with my name tag! I told you it was pretty cool.

Another cool thing that happened when I checked in was the free swag I received. I got two laptop cases, a t-shirt, books, trading cards, stickers, pens, and more!

Here is some of the awesome swag I got at SIGCSE :) !

After checking in, I entered the exhibit hall and was overwhelmed with nerdiness at all of the amazing companies that were running booths. Google Cloud, Microsoft, Oracle Academy, NCWIT - you name it, they were there. I got the chance to speak to so many incredible people who are trying new and inventive ways at teaching computer science. Everywhere you went, you could hear people talking about similar passions for computing and how to share that passion for others. While I felt very small compared to the professionals in the room (some of which are the world-renowned researchers and professors) that did not change the excitement I felt.

Next, I made sure to stop and hear some speakers before I present. I went in to listen to the lightening talks and it was incredible! I heard about ways to prevent Cyberbullying and about how to improve CS curriculum.

By 11 AM, I made my way to my main event and the reason I was at SIGCSE in the first place — our panel on accessibility in K-12 computer science education. It consisted of other members of the CSforALL Accessibility Pledge Advisory Committee including Shireen Hafeez, Todd Lash, Rebecca Dovi, Emmanuel Schanzer, and Maya Israel, the moderator. Walking down to the room where the panel was going to be held, I felt very nervous since I would be sitting next to such amazing and inspiring professionals. These people are some of the biggest names in computer science education.

Fortunately my anxiety completely washed away when I met the others who on the panel. Everyone turned out to be the most down-to-earth, passionate, and incredible people I have ever met. They each had a story, a reason for their interest in CS education, just like me.
At the bottom, you can see the advertisement for our panel! I freaked out when I saw my name!

Finally, the panel started! We each had to introduce ourselves and our experience with CS. When it came to my turn, I spoke about when I started coding and my story behind Programming Pals, the online organization I founded that aims to get students with disabilities interested in CS. I was also super excited since I had the opportunity to announce that Programming Pals is turning into an online curriculum with video tutorials!

Each panelist was asked what advice we would give to CS educators who wish to make CS classes more accessible. I discussed finding out ways to cater to each students experience in CS. Each student, with or without a disability, has a unique story and a reason why they enjoy CS and teachers should try to use that in order to create a proper curriculum that can be inclusive for everyone.

Next, Maya asked me about getting students to be more inclusive to others in CS. I talked about how we should try to find a way to eliminate the stereotypes and picture that many people have of how a computer scientist should look and act.

LR: Shireen Hafeez of Deaf Kids Code, Emmanuel Schanzer of Bootstrap, me, Rebecca Dovi of CodeVA, and Todd Lash from UIUC. Not pictured: Maya Israel. (Let us take a moment and witness how short I am compared to everyone else! Speaking into the microphone was a bit of a struggle #shortgirlproblems)

After the panel concluded, I made my way to the lobby to meet my parents so we could spend time exploring Minneapolis — thus, my SIGCSE experience concluded. Being the youngest at a huge event like this was not easy. It can be a struggle to get over the imposter syndrome that comes from it. However, once I did, I opened my eyes and saw that I did something pretty huge and rare. I hope this post shows other kids that you should not let your age deter you. Even though you may not have had the same experience as other people, it can make you stand out and be unique. You have a perspective that not many attendees at these major conferences can claim they have. If you are given an opportunity to attend a conference like SIGCSE, do not let age, gender, race, etc, define the experience that you will have and stop you from doing something huge. If you let that happen, then you will regret it later on and that fear and anxiety will continue to latch on to you.

SIGCSE 2019 was an unforgettable experience and I highly recommend it to everyone who has to chance to attend!

Emma Koslow is a high school senior and a disability advocate for computer science. She started coding with HTML and Scratch at six years, has currently learned almost 20 programming languages, and is the founder of Programming Pals, an online coding tutoring service for students with disabilities. For her work with Programming Pals, she has been recognized by NCWIT, Stanford She++, National Coding Week, and Girls Who Code. Emma also suffers from Misophonia, a rare neurological condition that causes severe sensitivity to sound and a Motor and Vocal tic disorder.