Female students at Albemarle High School have swept state and national computer science awards this year.
The students have won 10 awards from the National Center for Women and Information Technology in 2018 — far more than AHS has won in any previous year.
The NCWIT awards aim to encourage young women to pursue computer science and technology. By celebrating students’ achievements and connecting them with role models, the NCWIT hopes to counteract messages that computer science is not for women.
AHS senior Holly Hilten won NCWIT honorable mentions at both the state and national level this year. She said that when she first heard of AHS’ computer science class, she had “zero interest in computers.”
“I was like, ‘That’s for the smart kids; that is not me.’ But I ended up taking it, and I really, really liked it,” Hilten said. “It was really empowering to be able to tell a computer what to do, because for my entire life, I’d thought, ‘This machine is smarter than me.’”
In Buffie Holley’s computer science class recently, Hilten constructed a snowman-like figure out of marshmallows, gummy worms and chocolate chips.
The exercise is part of what Holley calls “metaphorical teaching,” which gives students physical examples of computer science concepts. The “marshmallow monsters” introduced the class to “objects,” one of the more confusing concepts in the Java programming language.
With her creative approach to teaching and outreach, Holley has brought female representation in her AP computer science classes up from zero percent in 2011 to 30 percent this year.
This year, 16 students applied to the NCWIT awards from AHS. The application requires a teacher endorsement alongside information about a student’s activities and experience with computing and technology. At the end of the application, students can nominate their teacher for a one-time Aspirations in Computing Educator Award — which Holley won this year.
For the students, the benefits of the award include scholarship opportunities and entry to a national network of other NCWIT winners. The Virginia NCWIT award ceremony, held annually in Richmond, introduces new winners to the network through a panel of past winners.
“They all talk about their experience and how it’s helped them, and all the girls were doing unbelievably well in college,” said Cami Pastore, a senior who won a state award and a national honorable mention. “Even [with] this small award, they were like, ‘This got me a job.’”
The network is key for Pastore, who hopes to start or expand a technology business after college.
Holley pushed students across the school to apply for the NCWIT awards. One state winner, 11th-grader Mriganka Mandal, has never taken computer science, “because there’s just no room in my schedule.”
Mandal won the NCWIT award for her potential in computer science and her achievements in biomedical engineering. Last year, Mandal was one of two grand champions in the 2017 Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair. She had found a component of lung cancer cells that could lead to a treatment that is more targeted than chemotherapy.
“I feel like biomedical engineering is really interesting, because you get to combine health care with computer science and tech,” Mandal said. “If you can standardize health care throughout the world and increase your outreach elsewhere, it’s really nice.”
Junior Jade Burns, a state NCWIT One to Watch awardee, is still figuring out her commitment to computer science, “because I do like math a lot, but I’m also interested in linguistics. And I’m taking Latin and I’m really loving Latin, but majoring in that would probably not be the best career course,” she said.
The first time an AHS student won an NCWIT award was in 2013, during Holley’s second year of teaching computer science.
Holley said she was inspired by a workshop she had attended the previous summer with University of Virginia associate professor James Cohoon.
Cohoon’s Tapestry workshops introduce teachers to strategies for recruiting girls and underrepresented minorities to take computer science classes.
“It teaches them about how to make your room inviting — not cover it in ‘Star Wars’ posters and totally geek out, because girls aren’t going to come to that,” Holley said.
The workshop helped Holley network, too. Because the previous AHS computer science teacher had left suddenly, Holley stepped into the role without much support.
“I had no one and no resources,” she said. But after attending a Tapestry workshop, Holley “actually had a learning community, who I could talk to and be, like, ‘I’m having trouble with this lesson.’”
Her success since then shows beyond the NCWIT awards and the increased female enrollment. Her current teaching assistant, or “intern,” senior Grace Barrett-Johnson, has taken class after class with Holley.
“I wouldn’t have come back to Ms. Holley for a third year if I didn’t like her and her class. It’s really engaging,” Barrett-Johnson said. “It’s the creative process, maybe. When you’re writing code, there are a lot of ways to solve a problem and you get to make it your own.”
Holley has goals for higher female enrollment, but outreach to African-American, Latino and Native American students and other underrepresented minorities continues to be a challenge.
“It’s really hard to target specifically underrepresented minorities. I talk to and invite every kid that I think would be interested or could be interested,” Holley said. “This year, we went to every 11th-grade class, just trying to see if maybe they hadn’t thought of it as a possible elective for senior year, and just making sure everyone can feel welcome.”