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No more missed opportunities: Effort to document women’s tech contributions gets start in Colorado

After TV news show 60 Minutes aired its “Cracking the Code” episode in March about the gender gap in technology, many of the folks working on the gap were furious.

The show didn’t reference any of the female-led organizations working on the issue, concluded that things were getting worse and let a man speak for women.

“It was like a punch to the gut,” wrote Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani, whom the news show contacted but didn’t mention. Same with littleBits founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir, who initially was told by producers that her voice would be central to the episode.

It wasn’t.

Instead, the show featured Hadi Partovi, cofounder of Code.org, a respected nonprofit dedicated to expanding computer science education among the underrepresented. But Partovi is a guy. He, too, called the episode a “missed opportunity.”

In Colorado, Ruthe Farmer was fuming as well. A long-time advocate for educating kids,  especially girls, in computer science, the Lafayette resident spoke her mind saying “erasing the contributions of women is unacceptable.” 

But she also had a plan. 

She envisioned a way to document the history of computerscience education that is so clear that it would be difficult for TV producers and storytellers to ignore the contributions of women. The visual timeline would be a vetted source of historical documents, video and personal notes sourced by the people who are making history. By relying on teachers, researchers and people working on change to contribute, an interactive and customized timeline would be available for anyone to see what happened. 

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She calls it Computer Science by All, a nod to her day job as chief evangelist for CSforALL, an organization launched under President Barack Obama with the mission to promote computer science for all students.

Ruthe Farmer, Chief Evangelist for CSforALL, a program funded by the National Science Foundation to create more computer science education opportunities for all students.

“I’m sure you saw the news flurry around 60 Minutes in March, but I’d written this proposal long before because I’ve seen this happen for a long time,” said Farmer, who earlier in her career helped manage STEM programs for Girl Scouts of the USA. “Contributions by people were being missed or erased. You and I both know that social change doesn’t happen in a click-bait headline. It takes a long, slow burn.”

The crowdsourced, virtual CSbyALL project is still in its early phases, but it has received financial contributions from venture capitalists including Brad Feld in Boulder. Farmer also recruited Jeffrey Ventrella, a visualization artist of virtual worlds like There.com starting in the 1990s. 

She’s hoping for a fall launch.

“This is going to get done by thousands and thousands of stakeholders, not just a few,” Farmer said. “We know the loudest voices get recorded and we wanted to make sure the voice of educators, who are often women, are heard and record history accurately … We want to document the movement and enable everyone to literally see the movement.”

An example or two or three

Did you know that the long-running Systers email list for women computer professionals started in a bathroom in 1987?

Founder Anita Borg recalled how the idea emerged  while attending an Austin tech conference. Eight women — or about 25% of the female attendees — talked about it while in the women’s restroom.

Or did you know that a 2003 meeting in Boulder led to the creation of the National Center for Women Information Technology? The organization uses research to shape best practices for tech recruitment and educational-training programs. The work helped the Colorado School of Mines quadruple its female computerscience majors to 114 last year, from 24 in 2012, said Tracy Camp, a Mines professor and head of the Department of Computer Science, who remembers speaking at the first meeting. 

“I remember it vividly as I was quite pregnant at the time,” Camp said. “I’ve implemented a number of these best practices that helped change the demographics (at Mines) substantially.”

Tracy Camp, a professor and head of the Computer Science Department at the Colorado School of Mines. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

These bits and pieces of technology history can be found somewhere online but not often easily. And summing up a years-long effort in a pithy headline or quote probably annoys anyone close to a topic. 

When the College Board introduced a new computer science Advanced Placement exam for high school students a few years ago, the feat was years in the making and touched by hundr of teachers. But the stories didn’t say that and that irked Farmer. 

So let’s rewind to around 2005. 

Jan Cuny, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Oregon, had recently joined the National Science Foundation as a program officer. Her job was to broaden computer science participation among students, especially those underrepresented in the field. 

She learned of Jane Margolis and Joanna Goode, two researchers at the University of California Los Angeles studied how computer science was being taught at three Los Angeles high schools. They found that incomes divided schools into ones that taught foundational computing skills versus simple courses, like typing. Course offerings and teacher assumptions also influenced whether African American and Latino students took an interest in computer science. The research became the book “Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing.”

In response, Margolis, a social scientist, and Goode, now an education professor at the University of Oregon, created a high school course and teacher-training program called “Exploring Computer Science” to appeal students who weren’t necessarily interested in computer science. It’s since been adopted by at least seven of the nation’s largest school districts, including Los Angeles Unified. 

“What I liked about her course is that it taught a wide range of things, not just programming, but the societal aspects of computing, a little bit about cybersecurity and applications showing students that no matter what you are interested in, you could connect it to computation in some way,” Cuny said. 

But Cuny wanted more than just a few school districts. She wanted this to go national. That’s when she started thinking about AP exams, the tests at the end of a year-long, college-level class taken in high school for college credits. At the time, AP classes were offered in 17,000 schools nationwide.

Before he became president, Barack Obama showed up at the 2006 NCWIT Innovation Diversity Town Hall in Washington D.C. to show his support for computer science education and encouraging more women to join the industry. During his speech, Obama said he was there to honor Jan Cuny, a program officer with the National Science Foundation. The National Center for Women Information Technology is based in Boulder. Pictured from L to R: Telle Whitney, CEO Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology; Cuny; Lucy Sanders, CEO, NCWIT; Obama; Ilene Lang, Catalyst; Bobby Schnabel, CU Boulder; Rich Rashid, Microsoft; and Mark Udall, who was a Senator for Colorado. (Provided by NCWIT)

Around the same time, the College Board, which administers AP tests, was about to kill one of the two AP computer science exams because of low participation. Called Computer Science AB, the advanced course wasn’t popular. Only 4,995 students took the test in 2008, the last year it was offered. (The separate Computer Science A test had three times as many students in 2008, and focused on programming language Java. It’s still offered today).

Cuny wanted a college-level computerscience course for nonmajors, one that would teach students computer science skills, like critical thinking, to help solve problems in any major. It would use lessons learned from Margolis’ research to broaden the appeal to students underrepresented in technology fields.

“If they were to put in a good computer science course, maybe that would be the vehicle to spread it across the country,” Cuny said. “I approached the board in 2007 and they talked to their stakeholders about replacing Computer Science A with a new course. That didn’t go over very well because many stakeholders were teaching Computer Science A. But they said if it was a new course then it would be OK.”

This was a high-interest new course for the education and technology industry, she said. About 30 people were on the advisory committee compared to the usual seven for an AP course. Cuny wasn’t on the committee but checked in with the board every other week. It was an arduous process. Creating the framework for the course took three years. Pilot programs, training teachers and getting buy-in from colleges took several more years.  

“In the meantime, there were still not a lot of states interested in computer science,” Cuny said. “It wasn’t until 2012 or 2013 and one of the things that changed was Code.org. They had a big campaign, Hour of Code, and it really popularized the notion that schools should do this.”

Code.org, which was featured on 60 Minutes, is known for its annual Hour of Code to get K-12 teachers in schools worldwide to expose students to computer coding to learn how software like Minecraft works. The organization creates coursework for teachers to use in classrooms and says 1 million teachers use its material.

By the time students took the new Computer Science Principles AP exam in 2017, it was deemed a success. The test had one of AP’s most popular debuts, with 44,330 students nationwide. The following year, participation nearly doubled to 72,187. (By comparison, the older Computer Science A test had 65,133 students last year.)

Compared to the past computerscience exam, a larger percentage of test takers were female, underrepresented minorities or from students from rural areas. In the exam’s second year, all three categories of students saw at least a 60% increase in the number of students taking the exam in year two. 

“A lot of universities are getting more students than ever before in computer science. Some are getting four to five times more kids than they used to,” Cuny said. “And there’s evidence that the makeup is different. It’s not just civil engineers but kids who want to become biologists or psychologists … It’s a big, long project that’s been going on for a long time.” 

Cuny said she received an award in 2016 for her contribution to computer science and had to give a speech.

“As people filed into the talk, I had a screen that scrolled all the names of everyone involved. There were 1,751,” she said. “It’s really exploded since then and it was not an easy task. Hundr of university faculty, thousands of teachers were involved. Even just last week when I was in Kansas City, there were 650 people who were (scoring AP computerscience) exams. And that doesn’t include administrators, guidance counselors and state education guides who all worked really hard.”

Images vs. 1,000s of words

Ventrella, the digital artist, is working on the technical framework for the CSbyALL’s timeline. He co-founded the virtual world There.com in the late 1990s, worked on Second Life a few years later and went on to develop augmented reality Wiggle Planet before Pokemon Go took over mobile phones. 

The way he talks about the computerscience timeline make it sound like a modern-day museum kiosk that visitors can see and touch an item for more detail. There will be many layers of information, anything from people and events to a school project, conference, curriculum, video from a lecture or a piece of computer code. It will likely add other layers of history, such as who are the world leaders at the time. Users can choose to see connections at a glimpse and over a few decades or drill down for more details.

The CSbyALL visual timeline project is still in development so images are incomplete. But it aims to better document the history of women in computer science and show connections, as this image focusing on Ada Lovelace does. Love was a British mathematician in the 1840s who is recognized as one of the first computer programmers. (Provided by CSbyAll)

It’s a different era from when Ventrella was working on virtual worlds in the 1990s. In There.com, users would personalize their avatar and interact with other players who happened to be logged into their computers at the same time. The animated characters stay within an enclosed virtual environment and have conversations. The challenge with CSbyAll is figuring out how to help people synthesize all the gobs of data available online.

“We have more information than we know what to do with,” said Ventrella, who lives in Northern California. “The way it’s presented to people is very important. In fact, I’d say we’re in a crisis of getting information to people. History is polluted by ideological and political and corporate interests. How do we fix that? That’s one of the reasons Ruthe wanted to start this project, to create a more neutral and truthful picture of history and by having the history makers create the history themselves rather than it being written by others.”

MORE: Computer science isn’t required in Colorado schools. But enough people think it should be that the state is training teachers for free.

There are philosophical issues here since people have a biased memory of themselves. Ventrella points to the book by Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States,” which tells the story not from the perspective of kings and warriors but of slaves, factory workers and American women.

“The fact is that history is not the same as truth,” Ventrella said. “It’s always interpreted. It’s constantly being rewritten. American history is being taught differently today than when I was in grade school.”

The project will seek out unexpected perspectives from people in the field.

“We’re trying to create a viewing experience of what it’s like to be an underpaid teacher and the experience of teaching kids software programming while using bootstrapped tools,” he said. “That’s a different story from a wealthy Google corporate executive who is promoting a well-funded Google app for kids. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But people need to see the history from the grassroots to the top. And a lot of time, it’s the teachers who are doing the grassroots experiments.”

The process will be curated by the organization so it won’t be easy to create or delete history, as is possible in Wikipedia.  “Individual users will control their own narrative and other users won’t be able to delete,” Farmer said. 

With the project, Farmer hopes to make sure the voices of teachers, female coders, Girl Scout leaders and others have a place. 

Women’s participation has quadrupled in eight years. It’s not a failure. It’s not enough yet but it’s not a failure,” Farmer said. “…I realize it’s not as sexy to say this long tail of educators are working hand in hand to get the job done, but that’s the truth of how education is done and how it is successful.”

Girls decode clues left in binary notation in an escape room during a free week-long summer camp for girls exploring science, technology, engineering and math at Colorado School of Mines. The camp is funded by GE. (Joey Lovato, Colorado School of Mines)

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