Posts Tagged ‘My Kids’

Geeks drive girls out of Computer Science

I’ve been a voyeur into a discussion between teachers about how geeks drive girls out of computer science. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject and how teachers, boys, and girls themselves, can all work to help fix this problem. Please leave comments! Are you a guy or girl in the industry? Then what is your experience? Are you a guy or girl who never even thought about computer science? Why?

Disclaimer, for seven years, I taught APCS in small, all-girls, private boarding schools, so all the kids in my classes were girls. I’ve worked in the industry as a Technical Writer, in Quality Assurance, and currently as a Software Engineer. So there are jobs in the industry for computer scientists (I have a BS and an MS) that don’t involve programming constantly in an office alone.

Dear Girls

  • Start thinking for yourself.

    I know it is hard to take a class that your friends think is stupid or geeky, but trust me, those friends you have in high school will be distant memories, saved in Facebook, in ten years. So where do you want to be in ten years? Bagging groceries in your hometown or having a job you can do in any coffee shop, any where in the world?

  • Try everything.

    You won’t know what you like until you try it. Have you ever tried programming? No? Well then how do you know you don’t like it?

  • Make a difference.

    Okay, okay, Computer Science is overrun with geeky boys. I won’t deny it. They are everywhere. But just a couple decades ago, a woman’s place was in the home. There were few women in any industry. So look at it this way, Computer Science is your way to help the feminist movement. Do your part!

  • Be different!

    You remember Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde”? I know the movie is a little old now, but the thing I like about her most is that she sticks out in the crowd and isn’t afraid to be herself. She is so confident. Be confident. Do what you want to do. Be you. And don’t be afraid to wear pink in a room of black!

  • We need you!

    How many times have you used an application and something has gone horribly wrong and you blamed yourself? Well, it isn’t your fault. Applications should work seamlessly. They shouldn’t allow you to feel like you screwed up. Can you do better? Can you make an application so easy that your mother could use it? Do you think about details? Do you notice when pixels aren’t aligned properly? Do you think it is important for an application to look sexy and work as advertised? This is why we need you!

Dear Boys

  • Ask a girl to try APCS.

    Do you know a girl who would be really good at computer science? Have you asked her to try taking a class? She needs some convincing. She needs to know that you have her back if the geeks start picking on her. Ask her. Insist that she try it. She just needs some encouragement.

  • Get a makeover

    So part of that reason that the girls aren’t joining your class is that you might be a geek. Being a geek is cool, but it is even cooler to be a geek who dresses well. Girls like a smart guy who dresses smartly. Find a cool guy to give you some tips. Do something besides play video games. Music, sports, something to make you more well rounded. It will help you get some dates as well!

  • Learn about design

    Most programmers are just good at programming. Solving a problem. But they don’t care about how it looks. How do you feel while you are using an application? Does it make you happy? It is kind of like cars. You can drive a lamborghini or you can drive an old Ford Escort. Both will get you from point A to point B, but which one would you rather be seen driving? The same is true of computers. They should be functional, but should also be beautiful. Form & Function are both important. So learn about design. Learn about human-computer interaction. It will make you a better programmer.

Dear Teachers

  • Computer science is not just programming

    Although, you must be a programmer to be a computer scientist, a programmer does not have to know much about computer science. Programmers are often good at creating applications and scripts from a small set of (or one) languages. This is like building a house with only a hammer. A good computer scientist understands the concepts behind languages, the difference between language paradigms, why one language might be good to use to solve one kind of problem, and is able to quickly learn a new language when the language they need is not one already in their repertoire. One of my favorite classes in college was the study of different programming languages. To me, it is like learning a new human language without having to speak it. Computer Science is also about learning algorithms and data structures. It is about the application of those concepts in things like artificial intelligence, data mining, or networking. Programming is what you do to reinforce learning the concepts, syntax, and semantics of a language.

  • IT is also not Computer Science.

    And I have found the IT crowd to be much more sexist than the CS crowd. In college, I was never put down for being a woman. I was pointed out as the only girl in my Operating Systems Fundamentals class, but that just meant that everyone wanted me in their group. Whereas, when I was running a school computer system and called our service provider to get help with a denial of service attack, the guy who was supposed to help me blew me off and said it was just because I had too small an internet pipeline for a boarding school. It didn’t seem to help when I explained that it was 2 am. During spring break. I was the only one at school. That is the only time I’ve gotten so pissed off that I asked for a supervisor, who happened to be a woman. She immediately said, You are having a denial of service attack. And then she helped me configure my switches and made some changes on her end. In six years of being a software engineer, I have never had a sexist encounter.

  • You don’t need a degree to start being a successful programmer.

    Encourage your kids early on to start making shareware programs or iPhone apps. A number of my friends paid for college that way. Some of the most brilliant minds in the industry started as teenagers.

  • Teach vocabulary.

    Your girls are coming in cold. They have no words to talk about technology. One of the best things I could do was to spend a couple classes talking about how to buy a new computer. What is the difference between a Megabyte and a Gigabyte? What is a harddrive, ROM, RAM, motherboard? What is the difference between Windows, Mac OS, and Linux? What is the history of Unix? They don’t know these things. One of the most rewarding moments I had was after Christmas break when one girl came back and said she helped her grandparents buy a computer, another girl had a conversation with a stranger on the plane ride home about computers. Giving girls a vocabulary is one of the best things you can do for them. Boys won’t talk to them before they learn some basics, but once my girls learned a little, they came back from break and talked about how much they had learned from the boys they knew, now that they knew how to speak their language.

  • Remove consequences.

    I know this is a generalization (like everything I’ve written), but girls think about consequences, boys don’t. Every year, I would start class with the same question, “Have you ever opened your home computer and looked inside?”

    Every year, the answers were the same. No girl raised her hand. So then I asked a follow-up question. How many of you have watched as a brother, male cousin, father, have opened you home computer and done something to it.

    Everyone would raise their hand. They were all curious as to what was inside, but every one of them was afraid of the consequences of doing it on her own. What if it didn’t work after she opened it?

    So I gave them computers that didn’t work, and I had them tear them apart. We talked about all the parts. They saw how everything was connected. And they didn’t have to worry about putting them back together because I recycled them.

    Then I gave them computers and had them insert RAM and ethernet cards. I told them about electrostatic shock and gave them instructions on how to avoid it. Every computer worked afterwards.

    Then we started programming. And I took away consequences there by telling them there was no way they could do something that I wouldn’t be able to fix just by erasing the hard drive and reinstalling. So they weren’t afraid.

  • Form & Function are important!
    • Take a class in Human Computer Interaction

      Computer Scientists are notoriously good a solving problems, but bad at design. For a good example, look at a couple different websites and think about which ones you like and which ones you just tolerate. What are the differences between MySpace and Facebook? Between WordPress and Blogger? Dell and Apple? Design matters because it is humans that are using computers. Do you stress that in your class? Are the final applications so easy to use that my grandmother could understand how to use it?

    • Get a makeover.

      Okay, maybe you already are cool, but odds are against it, since you teach APCS. I should know. I’m still not totally stylish, but I try. This is a good time to find a cool, fashionable coworker, or your wife, to take you shopping. A couple well-fitted button-up shirts without stains on them. Pants that are tailored to the proper length and not worn two inches above your belly button, is a good start. High school is still a popularity contest. Become popular.

    • Your classroom style is important too!

      It isn’t just you, it is your classroom. Is it inviting for girls? Is it clean and organized? Inviting? The kind of place where girls want to hang out? If not, get a group of cool girls to redecorate it for you.

    • Be involved in the school in other ways.

      Coach a sport, lead a club. Do something where the students see that you are human! If you get good exposure, you will meet more kids that you can encourage to join your class.

    • Do cool stuff.

      One of the things that my kids liked was that we took field trips. Of course those field trips were things like the GE Computer Science Competition. I used it as a practice exam for the APCS exam, so I took my entire class of 10 girls. They were rock stars! Not because they would win, but because they were the only girls there. The girls loved it!

      Do stuff in your class that will benefit the school. I can’t remember what we did, but in one class, we made an application that I then loaded onto all the computers so that the kids not in APCS could use it and think about joining.

  • Don’t think that questions about quilting are going to get the girls interested.

    Girls use computers to work or socialize, not usually for games. When I had my girls pick projects, they were often related to something they were doing in another class, or personal to them. For example, one class was really stressing about learning the periodic table in Chemistry, so we wrote an application that would read in a file I constructed, insert the elements into objects or a data structure, use arrays to store each element, and then write searching and sorting algorithms to get information back out. They all used the program to study for their Chemistry tests. Another class was interested in building an address book, which uses the same concepts as the periodic table application.

  • Just because there aren’t girls in a field is not a good reason to think they just don’t want to be there.

    These are kids. They don’t know they like writing or history, or math, or science until they try it. They may try it and not like it, but they may love it. We are missing many girls in Computer Science solely because they don’t know anything about it and aren’t trying programming on their own like some of the boys are.

  • Teach kids the social part of computer science.

    What is the social part of computer science? Well, truth is, in industry, you probably aren’t working on an application entirely by yourself. You probably only are responsible for one little piece of the program, but it has to work with everyone else’s little piece of the program. So design an application and break it up into a couple pieces. Make each kid responsible for their piece and that it works with everyone else’s piece. This is a good end of the year project after the exam. Everyone will be focusing on something different, but they all have to work together to get the whole application to work. They have to explain to other students the objects they are providing, what methods are public, what the inputs and expected output are, and how they can be used. And it is good practice for the guys in your class to learn they aren’t working in a bubble either.

  • Talk about ethics.

    Having interesting debates about what makes downloading music illegal. Ask them how they would like it if they wrote a program and asked for money but no one paid for it and downloaded it from a file sharing site. These kinds of discussions get girls interested in the class.

  • Girls need encouragement.

    Ask a girl to try the class. You have to do this personally. And if you don’t think she will respond to you, find a teacher she will respond positively to, and have them ask her to try it. Girls are much more likely to try something if someone else encourages them to do it. I once sat in a group of female heads (principals) of boarding schools. Each woman talked about how it was that she decided to go after the Head of School job. Out of 8 Heads of School, only one of them admitted that she had wanted the job and pursued it. The other seven all talked about having a friend, coworker, or administrator who encouraged them to apply for the job. And every one of them was more than qualified for the position, but was timid about seeking it without some encouragement.

Bottle shock

Why has it taken me this long to watch this movie?

I just got home. Made myself some dinner. The reason I don’t cook dinner is that it seems to require opening a bottle of wine. That is never a good idea. But today, it seems to have been okay. I didn’t overcook or undercook anything. Dinner turned out to be acceptable. Just acceptable. And the wine sucks. Just above drinking wine coolers, but I didn’t want to open a good bottle just for myself. I did that the other week and had to have one of my kids come over and help finish it.

But I digress. If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend it. Maybe I’ll eventually end up at a vineyard in Napa. Is that my fate?

And I’m off

N and I polished off a fabulous bottle of wine, then went out for mexican. Now I’m boarding a plane for NYC.

Just between you and me and the Internet, I’m ready to sleep.

I hope this is my plane…

Posted from my iPhone

My kids

I just had dinner with one of my favorite kids. For those of you who don’t know, I taught at a small, all-girls, boarding school for seven years, so I have a lot of kids. One of my favorites is in town and I had dinner with her twice this week. It was fabulous. You have to love that time in life when your kids are old enough to drink with you, you don’t have to curb your swearing, and you can tell them the truth. I swear that N hasn’t physically aged a day since I taught her computer science, but she is definitely an adult. It was great to be able to hang out with her. I wish she lived here.

I miss all my kids. I promise, I’ll be back for the centennial. Will you?

Posted from my iPhone

Girls in Trucks

I hid this weekend, as much as I am capable of doing. After running my errands on Friday, I settled—yes, settled—into a weekend of reading. Yes, there were a number of parties I was supposed to attend, and I managed to go to two, but I really needed a weekend to myself. So Perl and I laid out a blanket in the backyard and I began my adventures reading Katie Crouch’s “Girls in Trucks” while Perl stalked unsuspecting squirrels.

I’m not sure how I heard about the book. I assumed it was mentioned on NPR, but I can’t seem to find a…no, I thought I knew where, but I can’t seem to find the reference. Well, when I saw it in the bookstore Friday, I used some of my store credit to get it. And it was worth every sold book.

It is about relationships. The sexual relationships between women and men, and the societal relationships between southern women. Katie introduced me to Sarah Walters as a child in Cotillion class and follows her until she is 35 and still single.

I won’t tell you how the story goes, you should read it for yourself, but I will tell you how familiar the storyline seemed to me. It wasn’t my exact life, but I could relate to Sarah’s trials and tribulations of dating. The flings. The love of her life that she just can’t release, no matter how bad he is for her. Trying to settle. It is all there.

But it is the settling part that is most interesting to me. The other day, a friend sent me a link to an article in The Atlantic by Lori Gottlieb titled “Marry Him!” and it is subtitled, “The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough.” My friend has been anticipating my reaction, and I think it is because he believes that I will start ranting and raving about how this woman is a lunatic for writing this article.

I can’t.

Because she is right.

And I started to believe her with this paragraph.

To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist—vehemently, even—that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family. And despite growing up in an era when the centuries-old mantra to get married young was finally (and, it seemed, refreshingly) replaced by encouragement to postpone that milestone in pursuit of high ideals (education! career! but also true love!), every woman I know—no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure—feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried.

She goes on to say that yes, there are exceptions but if you are the exception at 30, then by the time you are 35, you will understand.

I understand.

As much as I love my life, as much as any number of people are jealous of all the crazy things I do, I would give it up in a moment for kids and a husband. For someone to help me make the day to day decisions and endure the monotony, and for kids who would make that monotony all worth while.

I’d do anything that is, but settle.

She continues on to recommend settling when you are younger. Before you have kids. Before you lose your looks. Before the pool of eligible bachelors dwindles to just kindling. If having a family is important to you, then knock it out of the way before it is too late.

And I can’t disagree. She makes some fabulous points. One of which is that she and her friend went to a sperm bank to have their children. So now, they are single moms. At least if they had settled, even if they had gotten divorced, then they could ship the kid to Dad’s once in a while and have a night off. Not so when you decide to do it all on your own.

So why won’t I settle if I agree with her view? Because it is too late for me. I’m past the settling years. I’ve resigned myself to knowing that I probably will never have children of my own. I might get to share parenting of someone else’s children, and I will always adore my kids from school, but I probably won’t ever pass down my own genes. My brother, Sparkles, has admitted that this has been his plan all along to keep me single and childless so that I will spoil his children as if they are my own and pay for their college education.

I’m also working against a stereotype. As I read once in Maureen Dezell’s Irish America: Coming Into Clover, being the oldest female in an Irish family, we are known to be headstrong and independent. And this often leaves us unmarried. I’m difficult, and I know it. And I need someone who can deal with that. As much as many guys would like to try, very few have succeeded. Some think that I’m broken and they need to fix me, which just pisses me off. Others let me get away with shit because they can’t tell me no. I can’t tell you exactly what I need, but I know it when I see it. There have been a couple guys that I’ve truly loved. These are the guys that make me soft. Expose my feelings. And it isn’t because they treat me like a girl instead of one of the guys. It is because there is something about them that makes me want to expose my vulnerabilities. That is rare.

And I know you all think I’m too picky, but I’m really not. I don’t let my brain make the decision when it comes to love. One of the last guys that I fell for is nothing like what my brain thinks I should find. But my heart says yes. That is why it is so hard to explain who I’m looking for—my brain doesn’t know.

One last quote from the article. Who can argue with this?

But then my married friends say things like, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you don’t have to negotiate with your husband about the cost of piano lessons” or “You’re so lucky, you don’t have anyone putting the kid in front of the TV and you can raise your son the way you want.” I’ll even hear things like, “You’re so lucky, you don’t have to have sex with someone you don’t want to.”

The lists go on, and each time, I say, “OK, if you’re so unhappy, and if I’m so lucky, leave your husband! In fact, send him over here!”

Not one person has taken me up on this offer.

Sickeningly cute


Had lunch today with Double D and Civil Sarah. Yes, they are cute, aren’t they? They got back together a little after Christmas. Double D was in the Dallas airport and decided to look at the gates where Civil Sarah might be waiting for her flight. He lucked out and saw her. He walked over, gave her an “extra” Christmas present he was carrying, said Merry Christmas, and disappeared. And Double D thinks I am a stalker!

Like I said, sickeningly cute. They really are. While we were at In’n’Out Burger—Double D is trying to make sure I don’t slip into becoming a vegetarian—we ran into another coworker and his girlfriend. Scratch that. Fiancée. He had complained in a group list about a problem his girlfriend has with her iPhone. I responded and reminded him that he had proposed and so now she is a fiancée. He said he was just going to skip directly from girlfriend to wife. The were at In’n’Out Burger with her parents who came to visit and make the engagement official. Another adorably cute couple. At least these two coworkers didn’t knock up their fiancées first. I’m not drinking the water at work anymore.

All my kids are getting married off. Thank goodness I have Perl. She is the only thing that keeps me from becoming Crazy Cat Lady.

And thank you goes to Civil Sarah for housesitting for my cats while Perl and I housesat for A-10-Minutes-From-Now and family.

Government funded censorship

I’ve been feeling a bit stressed out at work lately. Since I can’t talk about that, and since it is raining (which always makes me extremely grumpy as you can probably tell from earlier posts), I’m going to complain about my old job instead.

I used to teach and do sys admin work for a small, all-girls, private, boarding school. I loved teaching. I hated being a sys admin. The school and I didn’t always see eye to eye on some very fundamental things having to do with technology. One of those was a certain government grant (that I can’t seem to find right now). It was a couple thousand dollars to be invested in the school’s technology plan. It had a simple application, and was pretty much easy money. There was one catch. You had to install a firewall to block certain sites.

I refused. The government was offering money for censorship. I told the school if we needed the money that bad, take it out of my salary because I would never accept those terms.

Sure enough, as soon as I left, they took the money and put in a firewall. Now the teachers have a password that they can use to get around it, but the kids are blocked from more and more sites every day. This was supposedly meant to protect the kids, but they use it to protect bandwidth. Any time the school decides the kids are spending too much time on a particular site, they block it.

Here are a few of the things that I find wrong with this approach.

1. Censorship.
The last time I checked, I am guaranteed free speech. To me, adding a firewall to a network to restrict access to specific websites is denying my right to free speech. This is similar to banning books from a library. Sure, I don’t want to have a porn collection in my high school library, but I also don’t want someone telling me that I can’t have a copy of Catcher In The Rye. Oh, and if any of those books in the library could possibly be thought of as “fun” and “non-educational”, those have to go too! (My kids would be happy to tell you all about the discussions we had in class about the profound effects the porn industry has had on technology, as well as how the porn industry, like gaming, has been mostly dominated by men and that there is a lot of room for growth producing female-directed porn and games.)

2. Learning.
Many of the websites being blocked are social sites such as Facebook and MySpace. As much as I don’t want the kids wasting their day away twittering to their friends, the school is missing out on a number of learning opportunities.

A. Getting girls excited about technology and programming.
One of the reasons that girls don’t go into computer science is because computers just weren’t all that exciting when I was growing up. Yes, we used them to write papers, but as a whole, we didn’t get into gaming. Games are really the gateway drug of choice for getting guys interested in programming. So what gets girls excited about programming? Social networking. Girls love text chat, voice chat, and video chat. Girls love email and making web pages. Girls love making friends and communicating through Web 2.0 apps like MySpace. All the stuff that the firewall is blocking, I can use to get a girl interested in programming. Get her to start writing css and javascript to make her blog cooler. From there, it isn’t much of a leap of faith to convince her that she can learn how to write her own apps for Facebook. And some of the girls that I can hook on web programming, I can get to dig a little deeper and find an interest in writing native applications. And a few of those I can get excited about writing operating system level code…

It isn’t just programming though. It is using the internet as a creative outlet. Sponsor a blog on which to publish their fiction writing. Suddenly they have comments about their writing styles from people all over the world, not just their English teacher. Have the kids make videos and post them to YouTube. Show their photography skills off on a Flickr site. The more feedback these kids get from outside sources, the more effort and creativity they will expend making their art. You can have meaningful conversations about copyright laws (and try to convince kids to stop stealing music). And other classrooms can use the educational videos you make.

Okay, maybe not that one, but you get the idea.

B. Time management.
A problem with all of these sites like YouTube is that kids will spend hours searching the web for funny pictures and videos when they should be doing their homework. Personally, I’d rather that my kids (students) learn time management skills while they are living under my roof (school) rather than when they get to college. In high school, I have the opportunity to watch them closely, and have a chance to teach them better skills. I don’t want to shelter them from all worldly distractions, then send them off to college where they will be left completely to their own devices. I’d rather that the novelty of the web wear off a bit in high school than be completely new in college. But then again, I think the drinking age should be abolished too.

C. Data management.
Kids have a hard time understanding that everything they put up on the web is in the public domain. What they write in their blogs is fair game to everyone; friends, family, teachers, and stalkers alike. And it is persistent. Google has a hard time forgetting information and likes to give it to anyone who asks for it. Again, I think that this is a teaching opportunity. Be proactive rather that reactive. Instead of pretending that the kids aren’t posting on the internet and get angry when you find out what they have done, have open and honest discussions about what kinds of things that they should and shouldn’t be posting. Have a night where everyone in the group tries to find out personal information about other people in school and talk about what kinds of people may be doing these same kinds of searches. Show the kids how to use privacy settings properly. Talk about the realities of chat rooms. One of my favorite video’s to show is The Parlor.

I wanted to rip the world wide open. Use the internet to our advantage to learn and create and explore. Let disruptive technologies influence how we teach. As teachers, we might just be able to learn if we are willing to change.

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