Young female students at Berkeley Middle School are breaking through gender stereotypes with computers and microchips thanks to a group of women from William & Mary.
“Showing that there are women in the field and doing well and that you can do well is something powerful,” said Katherine Lannen, the new president of William & Mary’s Society of Women in Computing.
The society is the two-time recipient of the Outstanding Community Service Award from the Association for Computing Machinery after working to get female students at Berkeley Middle School involved in computing.
The association is the world’s largest computing society, according to the its website. Winners of the organization’s Student Chapter awards include competitors from across the globe — Aparna Nagaraj, former chapter president, said the first year the group had just applied on a whim.
“We knew that other chapters were able to do things on a larger scale so we were really surprised when we won,” she said. “Regardless of the award, we’ve definitely formed relationships and learned that even if an impact seems small, it is just as important.”
The chapter started in 2017 and Nagaraj said one of the first things they decided to do was community outreach to younger women. Nagaraj said she knew middle school was the best age to reach female students because that’s around the time when students are finding interests that might contribute to future careers.
“Things like this interest me and others because a program similar to it is what got me into computer science,” Lannen said. “This is the age where students become aware of the possibilities.”
Besides being so close to the college, one of the reasons the organization chose to work with students at Berkeley Middle School was because they have one of the higher rates of students on free and reduced lunch in Williamsburg-James City County.
Nagaraj said part of the goal of the program was to get students who would’ve otherwise not been interested or exposed to technology education the opportunity, such as those who might not have been able to attend summer camps or have access to different technology at home.
“There are some kids that come in with knowledge who might’ve had parents who encouraged it,” she said. “And then there are girls who just don’t have that opportunity and it is completely new to them…[Technology] is definitely a luxury item, and while it’s no one’s fault necessarily, it is noticeable at times when a person might not have as much access to it.”
Nagaraj said the team of college students, which varies at approximately 10 women, works with the younger students building on various learning activities such as Google Doodle or learning about computer science principles such as conditional logic and controlled flow. Lannen said lessons usually start out involving a lot of robotics but then move to larger concepts.
As a new graduate of William & Mary with a degree in computer science, Nagaraj said she feels confident in the legacy she is leaving in the hands of Lannen, who will be taking over the role of president as a junior this year.
Both women said their goal is to eventually spread the program to other middle schools in the district and find other ways to engage women in computer science.
“I think people really underestimate girls’ interest in [computer science] because a lot of the time the given assumption is just that girls don’t like math and computing, that they’re less naturally inclined to do it,” Nagaraj said. “Every girl we’ve worked with has been so interested and excited to be given the opportunity to build and create something.”