The Benefits of Being a 'Dumb' Girl in Computer Science

College students studying at table
College students studying at table

The following is a short essay about my journey into the field of computer science -- why I made the switch from a previous career path, my hopes and heart-breaks (so far), and where I hope to go in the future.

I am very passionate about helping women take an interest in computer science. I have several ideas/theories about what keeps women back from learning, but more importantly, I feel that I may have a solution.

The following are a few of my ideas/ experiences that I would like to devise into some sort of research project and apply those findings to development of software that encourages women to participate in computer science and to help the Laramie Robotics Club. All that I know so far is from my personal experience and background so I thought I would share it with you and hope that it leads me to my next steps.

Here it goes...

Prior to changing my major to computer science, I was studying molecular biology and I hated it. I was studying it for all the wrong reasons and the more I kept trying at it the more both it and I fell apart. I was seriously considering dropping out of college all together until one day during one of my labs my partner said something to me that I will never forget and it started a chain reaction of events that led me directly to computer science.

My lab partner was the picture of perfection and everyone knew who she was. She was gorgeous, involved everywhere on campus, extremely successful, popular and had been pre-admitted to medical school in Washington. On the first day of our lab, the first thing she said to me was, "I have failed this class 3 times now. I've been so busy with work and school and I don't have any friends here." That statement rocked me to my core.

I just couldn't believe someone as successful as her would be struggling with the same things I was struggling with; it was as if I was looking in an emotional mirror.

After she exposed her weaknesses, I was overcome with personal strength that I never knew I had. After that moment, everything started changing and I felt a power in me that led me directly to computer science. I changed my major not knowing where I was heading, but my eyes were bright and I was full of enthusiasm.

Then I fell face-first on the ground.

I failed my first computer class miserably. I just couldn't understand a word that the teacher was saying. In the back of my mind, I could feel that the material we were learning should be easy for me to grasp and just a few years prior it would have been a piece of cake, but I just couldn't wrap my mind around it. I was losing faith in my ability to be successful and that's when, out of sheer impulse, I emailed the Laramie Robotics Club looking to join.

The next time I took the class, something clicked -- I made the decision to raise my hand in class and admit publicly that I was completely lost. To my surprise, I found that not only the teacher, but also other students in class were eager to help and went out of their way to speak to me. So I decided that I would try the same thing in lab.

Being hopelessly lost in lab had become a regular occurrence for me until I finally mustered up the courage one day to expose just how little I knew about what we were learning. At first, it was utterly humiliating for me. The T.A.'s had to explain over, and over, and over again the simplest concepts. I felt the students in the room just staring at me and I saw them smirking every time the T.A. said, "Let's try this again." I was constantly fighting back tears and all I wanted to do was grab my stuff and run out the door, but I stuck it out. I ended up getting a perfect score on my assignment.

After that, I grew less concerned with what other people thought and made it a point to fully understand the concepts prior to leaving lab. What followed was perfect score, after perfect score, after perfect score - even though it seemed as if I was the slowest learner in the class and was ALWAYS the last one out. When I broke down my walls and grew comfortable with exposing my soft underbelly, everything started to work in my favor.

One day I was working on one of my labs in the hallway when a girl from my lab came up to me and asked if she could work with me. I was excited to have met another girl who was a COSC major and agreed. Soon I became aware that we were both hopelessly lost and that we were going to need to ask for help. I had suggested that we should go down to the student lab to ask the T.A., but she didn't want to.

She told me that just the day before she overheard a conversation outside of the lab where the T.A.'s were complaining about how stupid the students were and how easy the material was. She said she heard them mocking some of our classmates who had gone in for help and that "she doesn't want the T.A.'s to think that she's stupid" and that every time she has gone in for help she just left feeling worse about herself. She begged me just to stay a bit longer so we could continue to work on the assignment by ourselves.

Two things occurred to me in that moment:

1. I wanted to burst out in tears. As I looked at her all I could think was, "Oh my god - SHE IS ME" and,

2. I knew EXACTLY how to help her overcome her fear.

I told her not to worry and just to sit back, that I would do all the talking. We went into the lab and it was packed full of people -- all upper division computer science students. We found our T.A. and asked for his help. When he started to explain the assignment it quickly became aware that I wasn't grasping a thing he was saying. He tried again, and again, and again to explain basic concepts to me. He started to become visibly frustrated and impatient with my lack of understanding and everyone in the room kept looking at us. When I looked behind me at the girl that I was working with I saw her virtually collapse into herself and looked as if she just wanted to run and hide...

Right then and there, I said loud, confidently, and clearly so everyone in the room could hear me, "I don't understand."

The room became instantly quiet and the T.A. had a look on his face as if a spell that had been cast over him was broken. After that his whole demeanor changed. He became eager to help us. Not only that, but other people in the room jumped in to help explain and even the girl grew visibly more comfortable and started asking questions. Everyone became so eager to help -- it was rowdy, exciting -- people left and right were neglecting their own work to try to help us, and it became a major group effort and everyone was so passionate to jump in and help.

By the time we were done with the assignment, the entire atmosphere of the lab had changed -- everyone was smiling and laughing and we got to know one another. When I looked at my partner, there was a huge smile of satisfaction across her face and you could tell she was excited. We both got perfect scores on that assignment.

Over the next couple weeks something amazing happened. The girl that I worked with, who never spoke up in class and looked as if she wanted to hide in lab started asking questions. She became more confident in every question she asked no matter how simple or 'stupid' it appeared to be. I watched her start participating during office hours and help sessions. She got involved in discussions of the material outside of class. That girl didn't just have a good experience getting help on homework. That girl had actually CHANGED.

The whole experience again rocked me to my core. Exposing my vulnerabilities publicly and confidently gave that girl the strength she needed to participate. That's when I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life -- I want to use computer science to inspire other women to explore computer science.

I want to be a public figure in computer science that is the exact opposite of what you would typically expect to find in the field. I want to be that girl who no one thought she could, who had all the odds against her, that everyone thought was dumb, and yet she becomes incredibly successful in computer science. Then I want to turn that success around and use it as a pedestal to expose every wound, every failure, every painful vulnerability I have, even with my hands trembling, because that is what I believe is what motivates women and gives them the strength and personal recognition of "if she can do it, so can I," which then lights the spark to explore the field and helps women find their inner strength to go for it.

I strongly believe that the continued and constant emphasis in taking pride in failure is exactly what women need to be exposed to in order to let down their walls and break through the well-known façade that "you need to be a genius to be a computer scientist." I feel as though we need to emphasize again and again and again, publicly and within software itself, that FAILURE is the norm and that it is an indication that you are on the right track, not the wrong one, and without it you can never be successful. That the elephant in the room named "you must be a computer genius to do computer science" is nothing more than an illusion of the mind that plagues the field. I would even go so far as to say that we should reward failure, just as long as you keep trying and don't give up.

I would like to create learning software that emphasizes pride in failure over success. That the end is not the goal -- continuous effort to try again and fail again, and try again and fail again is. I want to emphasize that it's not about beating the game, it's about how many points you can rack up by failing gracefully. I also want to do more research on how exposing shame and failure transforms women and motivates them to take action and then integrate those findings into some kind of learn-to-code programming game, much like the Scribbler Adventure in the Laramie Robotics Club.

Anyways, that's about all that I have at the moment, but I hope this gives you a better idea of who I am, what I want, the purpose of my blog, and where I see myself going with all of this. More next time.

Cheers!

See the original article on my blog: Rewriting the Code.