‘Hey, I’m good at this!’: One school’s solution for recruiting more girls to AP CS

A Caesar Rodney High School student works with a group of middle school girls during Middle School Girl’s Day of CS. The goal of the event was to expose middle school girls to CS before they made their high school schedules. Photo courtesy of Peggie Birch.

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Each year, tens of thousands of students across the country sign up to take Advanced Placement Computer Science exams. The tests have historically been dominated by male students, but the number of female and underrepresented minority test-takers are growing steadily each year.

While progress is being made overall, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to recruiting students from diverse backgrounds — particularly girls — to AP Computer Science courses. Teachers are finding that they have to get creative when it comes to recruiting female students to these courses, let alone convince those students to take an AP exam in the subject.

At Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Delaware, one teacher got particularly crafty. Peggie Birch teaches all levels of her school’s computer science courses, including the AP CS Principles curriculum from Code.org. She noticed the classes were popular and always full, but the gender ratio was far from balanced. One year, just three out of 47 students in her intro to CS classes were girls.

“I noticed my numbers were dismal in terms of the numbers of girls and boys,” said Birch, who began teaching computer science in 2016 and completed a Code.org Professional Development workshop in 2017. “I felt like if the girls just knew about the classes and what we were doing in them, they’d want to be part of it.”

A leak in the pipeline

She also quickly identified a leak in the CS education pipeline — middle school students were required to make their high school schedules at the end of 8th grade, but they had no exposure to computer science. Birch said that because these younger girls were unfamiliar with computer science and didn’t have any peers studying the subject, they never signed up for her intro courses. To compound the problem, the intro to CS classes are required in order for students to take the AP Computer Science classes at Birch’s school, so many girls never got the opportunity.

“I have no way to talk to the middle school girls, so they make their schedules without really knowing about the classes,” Birch said. “They simply didn’t know computer science was an option.”

Luckily, she had a small, dedicated group of female CS students she could call on for help. Together, they came up with a simple idea: why not host an event to bring together middle and high school students, where the high school students could act as ambassadors for the CS program to get the younger students excited?

“Girls don’t want to be in courses if they don’t feel a sense of belonging,” Birch said. “So the idea was to give younger students a connection with an older student who was already in the program.”

With permission and support from her principal, Dr. Sherry Kijowski, the idea took off. Three busloads of female middle school students from three different feeder schools came to the high school for a day of computer science during CSEdWeek 2018.

‘Hey, I’m good at this!’

The full-day event, called Middle School Girl’s Day of CS, had morning and afternoon sessions featuring short talks on topics such as why there is a lack of women in computer science, how computer science is part of many career fields, and how girls can get plugged into computer science at school. There were also demonstrations featuring codable robots, unplugged activities, and a showcase of apps and projects. One especially popular app with the middle schoolers was an app called “CS in Fashion,” made using Code.org’s App Lab.

“Watching my high school girls advocate for CS and work directly with the younger girls was not only heart-warming but very effective,” Birch said. “During one programming activity, I heard one young lady say ‘Hey, I’m good at this!’”

The “CS in fashion” app. Play with it or remix it here.

There was even an iconic red chair from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT)’s “Sit with Me” campaign, which allowed girls to tell personal stories about how studying computer science had impacted them and the broader challenges women face when working in tech.

NCWIT’s “Sit with Me” campaign encourages women and girls to talk to each other about their experiences working in computer science and other tech-related fields. From SitWithMe.org.

“The campaign has been used by educators and corporations around the world to open a dialogue about the importance of women’s contributions to computing innovation,” said Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of NCWIT. “We’re happy to hear it was part of this event to reach younger students and get them excited about computer science.”

The event paid off in a big way: Birch said the percentage of girls in her intro to CS courses jumped from 6 percent to almost 20 percent this fall, and she hopes those female students will continue through the CS curriculum and ultimately take an AP exam. And maybe best of all, many of her new 9th grade CS students said they signed up for the course because they met another female student at the Middle School Girl’s Day of CS.

“We’re definitely planning to continue reaching out to our younger girls to get them interested before they schedule their high school classes,” she said.

-Kirsten O’Brien, Code.org

Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.