Future Tense

Code and Treat

How schools discourage some girls from pursuing STEM.

girl at computer.
We shouldn’t assume that some girls can be taught to code, create simulations, and develop complex cities in virtual spaces. They all can.

Photo by Thinkstock

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Thursday, March 27, Future Tense and New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program will host From Nowhere to Nobels: Pathways to Success for Women in STEM in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, African-American and Latina women make up only 3 percent and 1 percent respectively of the computing workforce. In 2011, only one Native American woman earned her doctorate in computer science and information systems. These statistics highlight an understudied phenomenon—that our schools continue to justify failure for some groups. In part, this disaster is a result of our society’s preference to oversimplify matters.

As research demonstrates, structural barriers often prevent individuals from historically marginalized groups from achieving their full potential. Schools continue to “code and treat”: African-American girls as hyperagressive and hypersexualized; Latina girls as destined for nothing more than teen pregnancy; and Native American girls as more likely to become alcoholics than anything else. These beliefs help maintain the digital divide.

And I am not referring to whether a student has an iPad. While most school communities have relatively fast Internet service and computers, the poorer, disproportionately black, Hispanic, and Native American educational settings rarely provide the students with technological activities beyond the basics of word processing and PowerPoint. At the same time, more affluent, predominantly white settings offer countless opportunities for students to not only manipulate technology but to create it. When economically disadvantaged schools do offer advanced computer science courses, girls are too often discouraged by their male counterparts and teachers from enrolling in such “difficult” courses, UCLA’s Jane Margolis has demonstrated.

But some girls actively rebel against these low expectations. They understand what the schools expect of them but picture much more from themselves. They even volunteer 200 hours of their free time to engage in a rigorous informal education setting. They are the ones my project-based social justice program—titled CompuGirls—attracts.

Founded at Arizona State University in 2007, we target teenage girls from high-need urban and rural areas. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and the New America Foundation in Future Tense.) Now with a sister-site administered from University of Colorado–Denver, we offer multimedia courses, held in community spaces like the Boys and Girls Club during school breaks. The girls are admitted in groups of 10–40, and they navigate three courses in which they create a digital research project around a social or community issue.

Although we may sound like a computer science endeavor, our main focus is self-development. We help girls envision their futures beyond what other social institutions—such as school—may imagine for them. We trust them to shift their identities from those negative images to more empowered shades of their selves. We put into practice this belief and give them access to cutting-edge software and hardware, encouraging them to take on time-consuming projects. For instance, a girl used Scratch to create a game that teaches an indigenous language to young children. One made a documentary explaining childhood obesity in poor communities. I was particularly impressed, and moved, by a museum-like space built in a virtual world that documents the psychosocial effects of child abuse.

Despite our attempts to scale the project, not all girls have access to this or any other empowering experience. Though depressing, it’s understandable: Creating something like this requires money and lots of dedication. But what’s more worrisome is that some participants report that they were discouraged by school officials to join CompuGirls. One student, Maria, told me that she had to take a subversive route to enter the program. “I overhead my guidance counselor talking to another girl about CompuGirls, but when I went to talk with her, she didn’t say anything to me,” Maria said. “It was a teacher who got me in.” Granted, Maria was a well-known truant, but if she’s expressing interest in an activity that might inspire her, why not encourage her?

Being perceived as a “not-learner”—an academic term that assumes some students actively refuse to study—almost kept Maria from a program that ultimately helped her shed the label. Not only did she become a peer leader and graduate high school; she also ultimately got a job managing IT for a local nonprofit.

But CompuGirls and I can’t take full credit for Maria’s success, just as we can’t completely fault teachers or school systems for her peers who failed to graduate.

I served as a fourth-grade instructor for years, and I believe in teachers’ intentions and potential. I also have hope in our educational system. But I, too, believe that children, girls in particular, will rise to the expectations we indicate.

Recently, I was honored as one of 10 White House STEM Access Champion of Change awardees. At this illustrious event, an audience member asked: With all of the attention directed to boys of color, do we run the risk of not addressing girls’ needs? It’s an important question. The truth is that to invest in girls is to invest in boys. Projects like the Girl Effect have illustrated that focusing attention on girls will produce greater yields to the society as a whole than concentrating first on boys.

I agree with this strategy, with a caveat. Our attention needs to begin with us reflecting on our own biases. We need to question why the not-learners receive “intervention” programs. By their very name, “intervention” suggests the need to disrupt an otherwise harmful situation with a more positive experience. The intervention is aimed at moving the not-learners to become learners. But that goal is far too focused on the individual. Rather than measure success by how much the girls change their identities, shouldn’t we consider how far they move their communities? True, one indicator of success is how quickly and effectively a CompuGirl can debug her Scratch game so players can enjoy themselves. If she wants to become a technologist, she has to be able to fix her creations.

But I’m more interested in seeing if a girl can debug her game and research how multiple myeloma affects the young in her community at a higher rate than surrounding neighborhoods. By doing both, she can build a game that motivates policymakers to reconsider the proximity of treatment centers for cancer survivors. Then she has become a “technosocial change agent.” Her accomplishments can inspire community action.

We shouldn’t assume that some girls can be taught to code, create simulations, and develop complex cities in virtual spaces. They all can, and they can do it while becoming change agents at the same time. Along the way, they may become more academically successful. If they do, it’s great. But even if they don’t, it certainly will alter how they see themselves—and that will affect the roles they will play in their communities for the rest of their lives. Shouldn’t that be a part of education?