The “All” in CS for All: How the White House can Attract Girls to CS

Photo Credit: Jessica Scranton

“I thought we were going to be paired up with people of similar abilities.”

That was what my Intro to Computer Science (CS) lab partner, Gerald, said to me, 10 minutes into my first ever CS lab. This phrase has stuck in my head for over a decade. As a student with no CS background and a big dose of doubt and isolation in a class of 20 boys, these words crushed me. I almost walked out right then and there, leaving computer science and my jerk of a lab partner in the dust.

I’m Emily Reid, and I am a computer scientist. But if I had listened to Gerald ten years ago, or my own internal naysayer, I would never have been able to say that.

I tell this story following President Barack Obama’s announcement of CS for All, an initiative to give all students in our country the chance to learn CS in school. It’s a historic step, and undoubtedly one in the right direction. While I laud this effort to bring computer science education to more students across our country, I know that access is only part of the problem. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.

My own introduction to coding illustrates this.

I took my first computer science class in college, and grew to love it enough to minor in it. But each year, I almost dropped it.

Two things kept me going: discovering a love of computer science through projects that mattered to me and finding a role model who showed me that someone like me could be a computer scientist.

My love for computer science developed through several hours alone in my dorm room, free of the classmates who made me feel like an impostor. I would think of a new concept I wanted to explore and start to pseudocode the program. Combining that euphoric moment every coder knows — when your code runs without errors — with the empowerment of truly creating and bringing your ideas to reality through code… that hooked me.

But even that passion might not have been enough if I hadn’t found a mentor who helped me brave the isolation. In the beginning when I first had access to computer science, I didn’t feel accepted by my CS classmates, and my friends didn’t know what I was working on. I had no community. But eventually I became part of the Women in CS group at my school, and I found a mentor. My mentor sat with me through difficult labs. She would say, “I know you don’t think you can do this, but you can.” Those simple, kind words helped counteract the harmful ones.

My story illustrates why it’s not enough to offer our students access to computer science education. If we want girls to succeed in CS, we need to help them connect coding to their passions and create a support system of role models and mentors for them to keep at it.

We do these two things at Girls Who Code, and they work. In our Summer Immersion Program, 90 percent of girls are currently or intend to major or minor in computer science.

I applaud The White House’s CS for All initiative. It’s an important first step. But we need to do more to ensure that girls have the opportunity not just to learn, but to succeed.