- Posted September 25, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Student voices in journalism
Women in Africa learn programming
It’s 2023 and headlines are no longer screaming about the diversity crisis facing computer scientists. It’s no longer true that only one in five computer science degrees are awarded to women. The wage gap for women in computing jobs has fallen below the current 13 cents less that women earn compared to men. Sexual harassment in the workplace has died along with the term “hoegrammer.”
What’s left is an insatiable desire among women to change the world and, armed with the knowledge of software engineering, the ability.
“I’m interesting [sic] in programming because it will help me how to analyze program [sic] and help me be a good I.T programmer.Im [sic] very excited to do programming because I want to help others,” wrote Clara, a high school student learning Python programming, on her blog.
Another student learning Python, Princess, who is a 21-year-old high school graduate who enjoys “socializing with friends,” shows the same uncontainable excitement about programming.
“Wow! Wow! Wow! I have learned something new in Python’s [sic] class today and it’s Math calculation,” she wrote. “It was great learning such a new and amazing topic in class. In Python’s class, i [sic] have learned how to share and help my friends when they need me.It’s quiet [sic] amazing.”
These accounts of women learning and loving software engineering aren’t from a college classroom in Massachusetts. They aren’t from middle school students learning computer science on government-funded computers in small town California. They aren’t from 2023.
They’re student accounts in a class taught in Liberia by Georgia Tech graduate student Zane Cochran. The class was sponsored by a Roots in Science & Engineering (RISE) grant from Google to iLab Liberia, a non-profit computer lab teaching technology skills in Africa.
A man and his Glass
Cochran didn’t set out to teach women computer science, but the class quickly became his favorite among the load he taught during summer 2013.
“In the [class] that was specifically for women, they grasped the concepts more fully and worked together to master the concepts,” he said. “They really got it and understood and helped each other.”
Like most things in his life including the physical computing exercises on which he concentrates his studies, the pieces for his trip to Liberia came together unexpectedly and beautifully. He was attending a conference in Rome, Georgia — his application for the Georgia Institute of Technology already in the mail, but still without a response — when he met a professor from Tech. The continuing collaboration between iLab Liberia and Tech came up and she asked if he would be interested in spending a summer in Africa. He was.
In talking to Cochran, it’s easy to see why students found him a knowledgeable and passionate teacher. He communicates succinctly and effectively, drawing off his bachelor’s degree in public relations to get his point across. He’s the kind of person that sparks tweets and whispers as he enters a room, not because of his appearance but because of the Google Glass he wears as part of his research in human-computer interaction.
He talks with his hands and his eyes flicker with passion as he takes off his high-tech glasses and twists them around, showing off the different parts and explaining how they work together.
Cochran rarely appears without his gadgets, including his DSLR camera since photography is one of his favorite hobbies. He taught a class on it in Liberia.
Seeing the world through a new lens
When Cochran arrived alone in Monrovia, Liberia — a place he couldn’t find on a map a couple of months earlier — he noticed some differences in cultures that shaped his teaching.
Extreme competition for technology jobs and an education system based on individualistic goals meant some students weren’t used to working in groups, especially in the programming classes with mostly male students. Pair programming has proven to help with learning, loss of confidence and low retention rates among computer science students, but he knew it would be more of a challenge to take advantage of that in Liberia.
When he began teaching, he noticed the Google-funded class for women was less affected by group-work phobia, though.
“I would encourage students who finished quickly to kind of turn to their neighbor and help out,” he said. “In the course where it was all men and one women, that rarely occurred. I found the level of collaboration to be much less. In the Python for girls course without even asking, they would turn to each other and ask for help. There was a much broader sense of community.”
He noticed the differences in community in other ways too. Many men expressed concerns about competitiveness in Liberia. Not one woman in the class expressed that.
“One concern [the men] expressed was that there are some people in Liberia who want to learn programming and not share that with anyone else so they can have the leg up over competition,” he said. “When they learn something they are more reluctant to pass it along to others because of the high unemployment.”
Cochran loved his experience teaching in Liberia and said he would jump at the chance to go back and pick up where he left off.
A positive trend
Programs such as iLab Liberia that operate off of funding from technology giants are growing in number. iLab Liberia is among a swelling list of companies funded by Google RISE awards, for one.
A more famous organization also teaching women computer science, Girls Who Code, which is based in New York, also earned the RISE award. The group counts Twitter, General Electric, eBay, Craigslist and many others among its sponsors.
For these tech companies, advocating for women and minorities in computer science is as much of a recruiting mechanism as it is good karma.
Non-diverse teams can lead to media uproars and programs that exclude certain users. For example, Apple’s voice assistant Siri could locate Viagra, prostitutes and places to hide a dead body, but failed to answer questions about women’s reproductive health.
JD Rouan, a graduate computer science student at The University of Georgia who recently won the Anita Borg scholarship from women in computing from Google, knows the value Google places on recruiting women, and with a job offer from Google already, she knows the company uses these programs as a way to recruit.
“If [Google] always goes to these schools in Palo Alto that aren’t that diverse in themselves, it’s hard to find diverse students,” she said. “It’s awesome what they are trying to do. It’s giving me opportunities that I wouldn’t have. They are trying to do the right thing.”
Cochran sees Google’s and other companies’ efforts to recruit and fund women in technology as a gateway to empowerment.
“They are providing opportunities that otherwise would not exist to get women involved in computing, robotics and engineering,” he said. “I think that’s great that they are thinking about that and empowering women to learn about computing and technology.”