Challenging the rules of code

Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

There’s a problem with computers, say Rachel Pottinger, Sarah Zwiep, and Alexandra Kasper. All of these women, who work in computer science, agree the field lacks diversity. But there’s hope, they say. Programs such as Simon Fraser University’s Girls CanCode and Go Code Girl, as well as initiatives at the University of British Columbia, aim to change the computer science landscape.

There are ethics of this community, propagated through the media, that make it look like a very unfriendly place to be [for women and other minorities],” says Pottinger, a UBC associate professor of computer science. “You get this idea that writing software is one person sitting in a basement hunched over a computer with Cheetos everywhere.”

The Cheetos-eater is usually white and male, Pottinger continues, similar to many characters on the popular television show Silicon Valley.

“Computer science is very much male-dominated,” she says. “That makes [it] less comfortable [for others].”

Coding with Confidence

According to Pottinger, and partially as a result of this stereotype, few members of communities other than this white male mainstream enroll in computer science programs.

“Across our undergraduate majors, there are roughly 32 per cent women. This is very high across North America at this point,” she explains. “Data is not available for minorities, but here, too, enrollment appears ‘very low.’”

Students coding Edison Bots using the programming language Python. | Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

Zwiep, an SFU computing science student who teaches Go CODE Girl and other programs, and Kasper, a member of the SFU Outreach program for the Faculty of Applied Science, agree with Pottinger’s assessment.

“I have an undergraduate class of 300,” says Zwiep. “There are only 20 women.”

In fact, members of these underrepresented groups show a lack of confidence when even attempting to engage with computers in a technological way, say Zwiep and Kasper, who currently run computer science programs targeting younger girls.

“The girls come in and they are frightened to even put their hands up in class, in case they are wrong,” says Zwiep.

But initiatives such as that of Zwiep and Kasper, in which young girls from grades 2 to 12 complete technological projects, are changing this situation. At Go CODE Girl, led by Zwiep, girls programmed robots to respond to a series of forest-fire themed challenges. And at the yearly Technovation BC, a global tech entrepreneur competition, girls aged 10 to 18 create a business plan and mobile app that addresses a community problem, such as bullying or unprepared hikers.

“It’s a competition,” says Zwiep, “[but] it’s teamwork and encourages confidence in the girls.”

Verbs and nouns

Zwiep and Kasper’s courses aim to demystify computer science and thus remove some of the fear for this group. Classes for girls in lower grades concentrate on block coding, while older girls study theoretical aspects of computer science.

“It’s like when you learn to write,” says Kasper. “You start with making sentences, putting in the verbs and the nouns. You don’t have to spell [the verb] ‘run’ to put it in the sentence. You just put the [word] blocks in order. Later you learn more theory, how to spell, how to create sentences.”

Such classes help girls gain a better appreciation of their skills.

“We had one girl who came in, very timid,” says Zwiep. “We had to be very careful and encouraging every time she said something, but by the end of the week, she was bringing in her parents to show them what she had done. Stories like that make this work worthwhile.”

Pottinger has her own initiatives directed at university-age students.

“I worked on a course for non-majors, a computational thinking course, and it definitely does attract a more diverse crowd,” says Pottinger. “We’ve definitely had people who’ve told me they weren’t interested in computer science until that course. [One] student went on to major in computer science, which is really good to see. She’s from Africa, and she comes in with this great big smile.”

Mentors for multiculturalism

Most initiatives target girls and women, as universities do not often record information about ethnicities and other minority groups. However, some in the field look at other underrepresented groups. A new focus group at UBC is looking at LGBTQ2+ students.

“We want them to tell us what they need!” says Pottinger.

At the SFU Academic Summer Camp, faculties present lessons and information to Indigenous students about what programs and university life are like.

“We’ve done trips to the Blueberry River First Nations reserve,” says Kasper. “We did two weeks there, and taught lessons which included computer science. We’re also going to Haida Gwaii.”

Zwiep and Kasper point out that programs such as these allow members of underrepresented groups to see female and multicultural role models who have entered the computer science field. Girls who have gone through Girls CanCode and other programs often come back five or six years later to help out.

“There’s the Girls CanCode Family Coding Event program for girls and their families, where the adults attend sessions to encourage the girls to be creators and users of technology,” adds Zwiep. “The girls also teach the adults their new coding skills.”

“This is something that diversity brings,” says Pottinger, whose department has a “vigorous” mentoring program pairing younger students with older ones. “Students who come from these diverse groups are interested in giving back to the community and in making sure that things are good.”