ROCHESTER — When Eric Dirks encourages his students to take computer science classes at Mayo High School, he often uses his wife, Emily, as an example of where they can take them. A graduate of Mayo University, she received a push in the right direction from teachers who shaped her career trajectory.
After high school, I studied computer science at Taylor University. From there, she worked at her IBM in Rochester. It all started with a tap on the shoulder of my math teacher who asked me if I wanted to learn how to code.
“Taking that class and discovering that she could enjoy coding was very important[for her future career],” says Dirks. “It’s actually part of my inspiration for why I do what I do.”
Dirks is now helping educate the next generation of computer scientists. As part of that process, Mayo High School awarded her the College Board AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award. The school was recognized for expanding access to computer science courses for female students.
Interest in computer science has grown significantly in recent years. Attendance in AP computer science classes has increased 103% nationwide since 2017, according to a Rochester Public Schools press release. A woman’s participation in a particular course, AP Computer Science A, has increased her 39% nationwide since the same year.
When Dirks started teaching the class in 2016-17, three of the 17 students in the class were girls. Last year she had 17 girls in her class of 31, making up over 50% of her group.
Christine Song, one of the students in her class, said that being part of a generation of women entering a field historically underrepresented was “a humble yet strong experience.”
“They are really into what they are interested in, not the stereotypes that society has set them up for,” Song said of women in STEM.
According to Dirks, classes in Mayo are comparable to the Intro to Coding courses computer science majors take in college. Although this is an AP course, he doesn’t require students to have coding experience, Dirks said.
Throughout the course, you will cover concepts such as “variants” and “control structures”, learn how to store and display data, and how to structure your code so that users can enter data.
Mayo Jr. Eleanora Williams, the daughter of two computer engineers, had never coded before taking Dirks’ class. She enjoys the fact that she can see useful results for her own efforts.
“In mathematics, you don’t really do anything with the answers; you just have numbers,” Williams said. “But here you can see the finished product.”
Part of the cycle is definitely self-driving. Dirks said that as more female students enter her science in computers, interest and participation in the class will grow among other students.
But he also thinks it’s important to be an advocate for the program. Dirks went to math classes at school and talked to students about taking computer science classes. He even took some existing students to other classes and talked about taking computer science.
And that may just be the beginning of the next computer scientist story.
“It was very important to extend that invitation,” said Dirks. “You need to give your kids top exposure to this so they can at least know if they like it.”