La Plata High School counselor Sameemah Shareef is determined to get more girls — especially girls of color — and traditionally underrepresented groups into computer science courses and on the road to a financially secure and fulfilling future.

“Having a very candid conversation is what I’m interested in doing,” said Shareef, who recently participated in a Counselors for Computing, a program offered through the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT).

Counselors for Computing (C4C) is one of four programs offered during Computer Science Professional Development Week that prepares more than 300 teachers and counselors to increase student participation in computer science education, according to a NCWIT news release.

“It’s a natural fit to target school counselors,” Angela Cleveland, a consultant for C4C, said. “In many ways, they are the gatekeepers of information. They prepare our students for the future and to be contributing members of society.”

C4C is focused on children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Some could find talking to 5-year-olds about future careers too early, but Cleveland, who has a school counseling background, disagrees. Age-appropriate conversations aid in breaking down myths about certain jobs being gender specific, she said. At the high school level, perceptions may need shifting, as well.

“[Counselors] are opening up opportunities for all students, some who have computer science myths in their minds. [Myths like] you’re sitting in the dark, isolated, creating code,” Cleveland said. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s very dynamic; it’s a creative outlet and problem solving.”

According to NCWIT, girls are enrolled in science classes — like physics, engineering and biochemistry — but those classes aren’t computer science.

Girls make up 56 percent of all Advanced Placement (AP) test takers with 46 percent of them taking AP calculus exams. Only 19 percent of AP computer science test takers are girls, NCWIT reported. The AP test taking numbers appear to be climbing among girls. During a College Board workshop, Shareef learned that 13,500 females took the AP computer science exam in 2016. In 2017, that number rose to 27,400.

Women earn 57 percent of undergraduate degrees and make up 42 percent of undergraduate math and statistics degrees. Forty percent of female undergraduates earn physical sciences degrees. But only 18 percent of undergraduates who are women get computer and information sciences degrees.

In Charles County Public Schools, male students outnumber their female peers in computer science classes, according to information provided by the school system’s Career and Technology Education (CTE) office. Five high schools have a computer science pathway for students. Henry E. Lackey and Thomas Stone high schools will offer the courses in the near future, said Rebecca Pearson, a CTE specialist. In the 2016-17 school year, 1,217 students were enrolled in computer science.

“Computational thinking and the skills students learn through computer science are applicable in every workforce,” Pearson said. “As the world grows and is more dependent on technology, it is so important that all our students are able to navigate the world. We want every single student to not only navigate that world, but we want them to write it.”

Shareef talks to girls about the benefits of studying information technology. It is a skill that can be combined with other fields of study — art, health care, anything really, she said.

“It’s about singling them out and talking to their parents. It’s about finding out their interests and talking about computer science and the game changer it can be for them,” she said. “There’s more than one way to carve out a path.”

Counselors are charged with looking at systemic barriers that prevent students from taking a path and then creating a pathway for all students to access all options, Cleveland said. Regardless of the field of study, information technology intersects with it, she said.

    Shareff wants her students to contribute to the landscape of computer science. “Systemically, they have been left out, but it is time to create a culturally responsible learning environment that submits positive messaging to our girls and particularly young girls of color,” Shareef said. “Girls have so much to offer by way of creativity and how they think about problem-solving around them. They must be in the room, contributing to the development and products that they consume.”

The freshman counselor, Shareff has identified a few girls she thinks would be a good fit for a computer science path, but it’s about exposing them to a field they may not have considered or don’t know much about. If a student doesn’t see people like them in a class, they may be reluctant to give it a go, Shareff said. “They might feel isolated or feel like they don’t fit in,” she said. 

     There are inequities in computer science, without many girls of color in classes, Shareff said. “Their exposure and encouragement has systemically not been there. It’s about encouraging them,” she added. “Letting them know the supports are there. I want to approach it in the healthiest way possible.”

     The U.S. Department of Labor reported that computer science jobs will be among the fastest growing and highest paid in the next 10 years. NCWIT reports that by 2022, the U.S. will only be able to fill about 41 percent of tech jobs that need a bachelor’s degree. Those who go into an IT career can have job security and high salaries with a bachelor’s.

      It’s a draw Shareff points out to students and parents. The computer science field is booming and will continue to do so, and girls and women are needed in those jobs — jobs that pay well. “We’re training these girls for jobs that have yet to be invented,” she said. “The new jobs will likely not be completely new but look like X+CS”

     But first, girls have to enroll in the classes. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” Shareef said.