Cynthia Lee: Providing Role Models for Women in Computer Science

Cynthia Lee, left and Claire Donovan, Girls Who Code instructors. (Photo: Lamont Abrams)

Cynthia Lee is a senior in the Department of Computer and Information Science (CIS). She currently assists with research at the Computational Genetics Laboratory, where she is learning to GPU program. She spent the past two summers in Germany, interning for an e-learning research group, ELLI2 and a renewable energy firm, innogy.

For more than a year, Lee has worked as an instructor for Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization that provides free computing curricula for girls in grades 6 through 12, who are taught in afterschool clubs. Here, she outlines how Girls Who Code operates at Penn and its significance for women in STEM.

Jobs in computing have been at the forefront of economic growth over the past decade and the proliferation of well-paid and interesting careers in the tech industry shows no sign of slowing. However, many public schools do not currently offer a computer science curriculum, and the majority of students, especially girls, are not taught the foundational computing skills required to introduce them to the exciting opportunities that the tech industry provides.

Girls Who Code (GWC) was founded to change this situation.

The Computer and Information Science Department (CIS) at Penn Engineering established a Girls Who Code chapter in 2017, with CIS undergrads Claire Donovan, Alara Gebes, Deniz Kecik, Zena Kipkenda, Roberta Nin Feliz, Ashley Nobi, Desiree Penaranda, Gabriella Schwartz, Natalie Wiegand and myself as the first instructors. As a group, we began to discuss the curriculum and themes for the school year. Specifically, we wanted to ensure that empowerment and encouragement were incorporated into our classrooms at the Penn Alexander School, Henry Lea Elementary School and KIPP West Public Charter School.

Left to Rrght, Girls Who Code Instructors Cynthia Lee, Deniz Kecik, Alara Gebes, Roberta Nin Feliz, Ashley Nobi, Claire Donovan, Natalie Wiegand, Desiree Penaranda, and head of CIS Diversity Rita Powell. (Photo: Lamont Abrams)

Girls Who Code provides a great opportunity to change students’ perceptions of who can become a computer scientist. The program teaches girls how to program, sparks their interest in computing, and increases their confidence and the likelihood that they will continue to pursue computing. This was my chance to be the support system for young girls interested in CS, something that I was so lucky to have when I was their age. Fifteen girls joined the club I led at Henry Lea. The girls had little to no experience programming, but more than enough enthusiasm and energy to make up for it. The students were excited to learn coding to make art, build video games, and solve problems.

As an introduction to coding, we started with Scratch, a drop-and-drag learning program that teaches basic CS concepts at a high level. We would preface each lesson with a quick icebreaker, a review of last week’s lesson, and an overview of the current week’s lesson. In the course of a semester, we covered variables, if-statements, loops, functions, and much more.

The next semester, we moved on to teaching the programming language Python through Codesters, an online learning environment that teaches basic programming concepts by building fun, interactive graphics. The girls were more enthusiastic about this style of learning because it was more hands-on. We translated the high-level concepts that the students learned in Scratch to Python and introduced some practical skills such as commenting and debugging. The projects included building a space game, an interactive poll, and designing the students’ own logos. The girls were especially excited because they could immediately see the results of their work.

On the last day of class, we played a game of Jeopardy to review all the concepts they had learned so far, something the TAs for introductory CS courses at Penn are fond of doing. This semester, we are focusing on learning how to use Turtle, a Python graphics package, so that the girls can apply the concepts they’ve learned previously to a real-world program. It was great to hear that so many of the girls would be returning this semester as well.

My involvement as a GWC instructor at Henry Lea has spurred me to reflect on how critical the support of my family and friends has been to my success in STEM. My freshman year at Penn was an adjustment, not only due to the inherent uncertainty of leaving home for a new place, but also the complete change in the environment of my education. The all-girls high school that I attended had small classes where there was little awareness of gender issues among my peers. Furthermore, my teachers saw that I genuinely enjoyed science and would recommend extracurriculars for me to pursue beyond the STEM courses offered there. While this environment was incredibly supportive, it shielded me from the true obstacles that women face in many STEM fields throughout their educational and professional careers.

While I came into Penn with an awareness that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, I now better understand the subtle bias women face. I remember the dismissiveness of a male classmate, who expressed surprise that I was in so many of the same physics and CIS classes with him. I remember a lab partner questioning my work but then trying to take credit for it in front of our TA. I remember discussing gender dynamics in my Engineering Ethics recitation, when a peer suggested that there were few high-performing women in engineering because women are more interested in familial matters than technology.

These are examples of the discouragement that any woman in STEM, at any institution of higher education or big tech company, will likely recognize. Fortunately, Penn has taken action to support its women engineers with home-grown programs such as Advancing Women in Engineering and Penn Women in Computer Science, local chapters of national organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers, and outreach programs such as Girls Who Code and Tech It Out Philly, a series of Sunday afternoon coding workshops for high school students.

Penn Engineering’s efforts for inclusion are also shown through its own student body; the enrollment of undergraduate women engineers at Penn is twice that of the national average.

After participating in GWC for a year now, the experience has exceeded my expectations. The girls are so eager to answer questions and begin their coding assignments. They not only have so much talent and potential, but also love to add their own creative flairs to the projects. I hope to see them grow and continue to use programming in their lives.

However, teaching girls how to code is only the first step in having more women in CS. The percentage of women working in CS has steadily decreased since the 1990s, even though demand for these technical skills has only increased. Hostile workplace environments and sexist stereotypes about programmers tend to further discourage women from pursuing CS-related work.

Additionally, the recent publicity on the toxic workplace environments in too many tech firms begs reflection on the issues professional women face today. Our very own Penn alumna Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at Uber, was the one to call out the company for its tolerance of sexual harassment and its refusal to promote high-performing women engineers in order to keep a ‘token’ woman on the team.

I will remember her courage in speaking out against this kind of injustice as I continue to pursue CS after graduation. She is an excellent role model for the support system that we must instill in both our younger generations and ourselves. By giving girls the confidence and skills to pursue CS, we are laying the foundations for more confident and capable women in computing.

Penn Engineering’s GWC chapter was established by Rita Powell, head of CIS Diversity, and is generously funded by Penn alumni Lori and Mark Fife. Arvind Bhusnurmath serves as faculty advisor to the Girls Who Code instructors and Engineering Entrepreneurship Coordinator Nora Rodgers, a former elementary school teacher, assists student instructors with lesson planning.