Coding is often thought of as male activity, but students at Wellesley College, an all-women's college outside of Boston, are challenging that notion. They've responded to the call by celebrities and public figures, from singer Shakira and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to President Barack Obama, to support the "Hour of Code," an initiative designed to encourage young people to devote one hour between December 9 and December 15 to learning about computer programming. Wellesley students are staffing kiosks throughout the Wellesley campus where their peers — and members of the community — can come learn to code.
"People say coding is for boys who love video games; however, I think it's for anyone and everyone who wants to make something happen," says first-year Wellesley student Cali Elise Stenson.
The students at Wellesley have great role models to follow, including the two women for which the timing of the Hour of Code was chosen to honor: Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (b. December 9, 1906), co-inventor of Common Business Oriented Language, and Ada Lovelace (b. December 10, 1815), often described as the world's first computer programmer. The Hour of Code coincides with Computer Science Education Week, an awareness week that seeks to broaden the number of people who are computationally literate, that is scheduled each year to coincide with the birthdays of the two programming pioneers.
"I think that emphasizing the role of these two women pioneers to make sure that more women and minorities get involved in computing is really fitting," says Eni Mustfaraj, Visiting Lecturer in Computer Science at Wellesley.
At Wellesley, enrollment in computer science courses is soaring. The number of majors has more than doubled in the last two years, and course enrollment among non-majors is up 50 percent. The department's interdisciplinary courses partner with other fields, like music and neuroscience, to offer students insight into the diverse ways one can use computer science. However, this isn't the trend at most American colleges and universities.
"Most people don't understand what computer science is about; this is especially true of students at American middle and high schools," says Franklyn Turbak, Associate Professor of Computer Science. "Only a small percentage of [middle and high schools] teach computer science courses. This is a key reason why few students pursue undergraduate and graduate computer science degrees even though there is an incredible demand for such degrees."
According to Code.org, organizer of the Hour of Code initiative, computer science jobs are growing at twice the national average; these jobs also tend to pay higher. Despite this, less than 2.4 percent of college students graduate with a computer science degree. Further, it is estimated that of the 0.7 percent of high school students who take Advanced Placement computer science courses, women represent less than 15 percent and students of color average about 8 percent.
Further, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that 62 percent of job growth in STEM areas before 2020 will be in computing-related areas, Turbak says, and the Computing Research Association estimates that tens of thousands of computing jobs are going unfilled annually because American schools are not graduating enough students who are knowledgeable about computer science.
Monica Starr Feldman, a senior Computer Science major and Economics minor at Wellesley who will be working at Apple after she graduates in May 2014, says many of her friends "can't wrap their head around" how she can be content coding all day long. She's volunteering her time to the event and hopes that it will persuade some of her friends to try a Computer Science course.
Stenson, Feldman, and other students at Wellesley are volunteering more than 36 hours of their time this week to teaching fellow students during the Hour of Code initiative, an effort that Professor Mustafaraj thinks should be undertaken on more campuses beyond the end of this week's event.
"Coding a computer is an act of creativity. I, and others, compare writing beautiful programs that make abstract ideas to come alive on our screen to the act of writing poetry and fiction," Mustafaraj says. "Computer science needs to be a part of the liberal education of every college student. It's not about becoming computer scientists, it's about the joy of creation and the journey to get there."