Creating the Next Generation of Programmers
By Anna Gaynor
Uljana Sejko wanted to know why all the boys at her high school were taking the same class. So she enrolled in her first computer science course and unexpectedly found herself on a new career path.
“I was like, ‘Why are so many guys doing this?’ ” said Sejko, now a sophomore at Loyola. “So I took an introductory course in high school. There were two girls, including me.”
To her, computer science felt like a puzzle, one that required critical thinking and logic to make everything fit—though that wasn’t the only thing that appealed to her. The idea of making a difference in a male-dominated field also played a role as well.
Today, Sejko is giving Chicago-area students—many of them girls—a much earlier introduction than she had. Through a service-learning course from the Department of Computer Science, Loyola students are going out in the community to introduce children and teens to computer programming.
The class, Broadening Participation in Computing and STEM, works with the STARS Computing Corps, a national organization that aims to increase the number of young people interested in science and technology. The goal for these Loyola students, however, is to not just promote careers in computer science. They also want to improve diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
Ronald Greenberg, PhD, associate professor of computer science at Loyola, started reaching out to local schools when the number of college graduates in his field began declining across the country.
“I said to myself, ‘We also need to be getting out there into the high schools and telling students that they should be looking at computer science,’ ” Greenberg said. “Most high schools don’t really offer instructional computer science or not very much, so there’s a lot that people aren’t seeing and need to know about opportunities they can pursue.”
The mechanical approach
In the fall of 2015, Sejko spent her Friday afternoons at Skinner North Classical Elementary School in Chicago’s Near North Side neighborhood. As part of her class, she helped Skinner’s FIRST Robotics team, a club that programs robots for LEGO Mindstorm competitions. But she also did much more.
“I come from another country, so I never had the opportunities they have,” said Sejko, who grew up in Albania. “To me, what they have is very, very important, and if they don’t utilize it, it’s useless. Exposing them early—at least they get to see it first and decide if they like it or not.”
Sejko isn’t the only Loyola student who helped the FIRST Robotics team. Senior August Meyer and other members of LuTech, a student organization focusing on social justice and computer science, volunteered every week as assistant coaches.
“I take working with kids and technology very seriously because I wish I had had the opportunity,” Meyer said. “I didn’t even know really what programming was until high school, so the fact that I was able to help teach kids about programming in elementary school is pretty cool for me.”
The broad approach
While taking Greenberg’s class in 2014, Meyer taught basic computer programming to elementary school students through Right At School, which offers afterschool enrichment programs. Many of the children had never used a computer to do anything beyond surf the Internet or type homework.
“I feel like I’m doing good, and it’s also just fun for me,” Meyer said. “I like technology and any excuse to work with cool stuff—and robots are cool.”
Greenberg has found that his students often get more out of the outreach experience than just helping the community.
“A lot of times students think it helps themselves as well,” he said. “They come back much more motivated about doing computer science and realizing a little more about, ‘Why do I want to do this?’ So it can really change their own views and perspective on the field.”
A different approach
As Greenberg began getting more involved in attracting young talent, he also started working with groups such as the National Center for Women & Information Technology that want to increase the number of women in the industry.
In class, Greenberg shows the students the numbers behind underrepresented groups in the STEM fields as well as the research showing the effects negative stereotypes and a lack of diversity can bring.
“We talked about underrepresented groups and I thought, ‘Yes, this is what I want to talk about,’ ” Sejko said. “It’s nice to focus a little bit on us.
“They see our perspective on it,” she said. “I definitely see that they understand us more after we talk, but you have to take that initiative and communicate with them. Classes like this help with that.”
Visit the Loyola STARS website for more information.