How Girls Can Get a Computer Science Education for Free

As a member of the tech industry, the author of today’s post Olivia Leonardi is always struck by the huge gender gap that plagues tech companies. With this post, she hopes to get more girls involved in computer programming, a fast growing field of study that typically results in high paying and secure employment, something discussed on this site a few months back. Typically Leonardi is a writer and researcher for an educational resource that offers information on computer science careers and education.

Although women rival men in terms of Internet usage and connectivity, their participation in the science behind the infrastructure—the coding, programming, and web script writing that make information technology function—is all but negligent in  comparison to their usage.

According to national surveys and university statistics, only about 15 percent of U.S. college graduates in computer science and engineering are women.

However, the field is growing rapidly and more minds than ever are needed to keep up with the demand. This means that women, who make up just over half of the population, are needed in a field once thought to be the realm of nerdy boys who would never meet a member of the opposite sex. Encouraging girls and young women to pursue careers in computer science is crucial to ensure progress and innovation keeps moving forward and fortunately, it is getting easier thanks to a wealth of online tools and courses.

The Reality of a Rapidly Modernizing Economy

The use of technology has revolutionized the job market. Almost every business today is completely wired and need support from robust IT departments to help manage their network traffic and understand their information exchange needs. Computer programmers keep busy designing new platforms and software applications, while the rising use of smartphones and tablet computers has opened up a range of mobile engineering jobs.

Many of these jobs involve traditional office work, but the field as a whole is usually considered quite flexible. The huge demand means that qualified candidates can largely choose their own clients and work schedules, and often enjoy a lot of flexibility. Working from home and telecommuting is often a viable option for programmers who are unable to relocate or who have commitments outside of work.

This flexibility in scheduling highlights a more serious problem in the tech field:  gender bias. Much of the problem with attracting women to careers in technology has its roots in societal prejudice. “Unfortunately, the field—the expectations in the field, the culture of the field, the curriculum in the field—is very much oriented toward the appetites and the learning styles of a narrow slice of males,” Jane Margolis, a research at the University of California-Los Angeles, told CNET in a 2002 interview. As a result, many girls never consider careers in computer science—and if they do, they start much later, learn more timidly, and come into university programs with less overall experience.

Promising and Tentative Steps Forward

While some still view coding and programming as “boys’ skills,” a lot has changed since 2002. Much of this has to do with the ever-widening availability of online tutorials and lessons related to computer science. Girls today can learn the basics of IT infrastructure and computer programming at home, usually for free. Internet-based courses develop both a basic skill set and a subject-area confidence that can help girls overcome classroom stigmas and industry stereotypes.

Much of the education available online is quite dynamic, as well. “Rather than starting computer science education off by explicitly teaching how a computer works or fundamental programming concepts (like variables, logic, control structures, etc.) you put the student into code of graduate complexity and encourage them to manipulate, explore, and write their own programs,” programmer John Resig told PC World magazine of online computer programming lessons. Resig is one of the chief programmers for the Kahn Academy, a free video-based lecture series available online.

The Kahn series of lectures are geared primarily to children and students at the middle and high school levels. There are plenty of resources available for all ages, though. Below are a few of the most popular:

  • Classes and lectures posted on the Coursera website, pioneered by Stanford professors
  • Coursework available through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Harvard University collaboration, MITx
  • Web-based tutorials on Codeacademy

Computer skills are important for all children to learn, but particular emphasis should be placed on getting girls interested in the field. The emergence of many online tools, most of which are available free of charge, may be one of the best ways to spark interest and develop passion in tomorrow’s leaders.

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