- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (AP) - Teayanna Leytham wants to make the world a better place.

The Thomas Jefferson senior has her sights set on improving air quality and she plans on using her computer science skills to do it.

In a time when girls and women remain significantly underrepresented in fields like computer science and engineering, Leytham is one example of a student working to challenge the stigma that the field of computer science is male-dominated.

“I always really loved STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) throughout high school,” Leytham said. “Over the summer, I realized I wanted to have a job in science but I wasn’t sure what that was going to be yet exactly.”

The Daily Nonpareil (https://bit.ly/2ieAQ2M ) reports when she first started researching colleges to attend last summer, she discovered that her degree of interest required her to take a computer science course. So she registered for introduction to computer science last semester. She was one of only three girls to take the class out of 28 students.

“Computer science has been and is still a male-dominated field,” Jason Plourde, director of secondary education of the Council Bluffs schools said. “In the Council Bluffs schools, we are striving to change that.”

One way to help fight the diversity imbalance in computer science classrooms in schools is to start talking to students sooner, Plourde added. The Council Bluffs school district currently offers courses called “exploratories” at the middle school level.

“As a result of having these courses in middle school, more girls are opting into classes that were traditionally only offered at the high school and thus, male-dominated,” Plourde said.

T.J. computer science teacher Denise Hoag believes that by working to change the stereotype that computer science is boring could be another way to help snag the interest of girls - like Leytham.

“I think at this age girls might not be as confident and they’re looking to take electives that their friends are taking instead of something that they might be interested in,” Hoag said. “If we change the misconception that computer science is boring then maybe more girls would be interested in taking it.”

Despite what some people might think of computer science it’s more than just sitting in a cubicle and programming in front of a computer screen, Hoag said.

“It’s creative and can be used to help humanity and do some good in the world like make air quality better like Teayanna wants to do,” she added.

Leytham attributes part of her interest in computers and programming to her mom.

“My mom always got me into schooling,” she said. “She helped me with homework and I’ve always really been into education and I’m not sure if it’s the same for all girls.”

Leytham said she also thinks that by allowing girls to express their opinions more freely at a younger age could help push girls to choose computer science later in life.

“I feel like a lot of girls are feeling outnumbered and it makes them feel intimidated because boys might shut out their opinions,” Leytham said. “If we encourage girls at a young age that everyone can express their opinions then maybe they’ll feel more comfortable on having their opinions heard and they’ll pursue STEM more.”

Once Leytham graduates from high school in May, she plans on pursuing a double major in environmental engineering and chemical engineering. Even if she doesn’t pursue computer science in college, Hoag said Leytham will continue to benefit from the skills she learned in the classroom.

“Any programming language that they take is going to help in whatever language they take in college because they’ve already learned the basics,” Hoag said. “As far as non-computer science related skills they’re learning things like logical thinking and problem solving.”

Being a computer science teacher and a woman, Hoag is familiar with the gender gap in the field and she’s always working to try and close the gap she sees in her classrooms today. It’s because of her that there’s now a technology summer program for middle school students that are girls to attend called “Girls Rule.” She also takes high school students who are girls to a STEM conference called The Road Less Traveled held at Iowa State University each year.

“Having a female role model as a teacher has been a positive step in the right direction,” Plourde said. “Mrs. Hoag came from the business world where she was a minority in the computer science field, and she can relate her experiences to her students.”

Hoag said other than the lack of girls in her classes, her classrooms are very diverse attracting all kinds of students with different backgrounds. She hopes by continuing to dismantle the idea that computer science is boring, more girls will eventually pursue it as a career.

“Get that message out that you can make the world a better place through computer science and it would tend to appeal to a more diverse student body,” Hoag said.


Information from: The Daily Nonpareil, https://www.nonpareilonline.com

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