Girls defy gender norms in pursuit of STEM careers

Seniors accepted into computer science program at University of Washington

Ana Marbett and Eleanor Dudley

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Chris Holland

Our generation has grown up surrounded by technology. What we sometimes forget is the time, energy and resources that allow us to have instant communication and a plethora of knowledge.

Seniors Elena Spasova and Mykalena Sheldon are entering this field. Both girls will be attending the University of Washington in the fall where they will major in computer science.

The highly selective major allows some spots to freshman who are passionate and dedicated. Spasova and Sheldon did not come into high school expecting to major in computer science. Instead, they realized their passion by the end of their sophomore year.

“We took the intro class and it was really fun so then we took the next one which was more advanced and we really liked it so we took AP the next year,” Sheldon said.

While they had the opportunity to pursue computer science, they faced challenges as females in a predominantly male class. Here at Ballard, only 24% of students in computer science classes are girls.

Elena Spasova 12

“Our entire class is boys,” Spasova said.

Computer science teacher Jim Verhaeghe believes this is due to misconceptions about computer programming.

“It’s one those things I’m trying to bust and hopefully Mykalena and Elena can help clear that air,” Verhaeghe said.

One issue that girls who are looking to go into computer science face is a lack of female role models. Luckily for Spasova and Sheldon, a program called Technology Education And Literacy in Schools (TEALS) provided them with an inspiring teacher, Kasey Champion. Champion graduated from the University of Washington and then went on to work at Microsoft but spent her mornings teaching with the TEALS program.

“She really showed me that it was possible to succeed as a girl in STEM. She was the only girl in her classes and she was in the UW program and we would always spend the whole period asking her questions and asking how UW was and how to get in all that stuff because she was just such a fascinating person,” Sheldon said.

Last year Champion traveled to Africa where she taught children about science, math and engineering. This sort of social work is what Sheldon and Spasova want to do after attending university.

“At the UW I want to double major -and I think you [Sheldon] do too- in Computer Science and Environmental Studies,” Spasova said. “So the ultimate goal would be to work at some start-up or company or organization that uses technology to further global and environmental advancements.”

To get to this point Spasova and Sheldon had to get out of their comfort zone and find connections through programs and events.

Mykalena Sheldon 12

“We found a lot of techie events through facebook targeted to girls that we went to like we’ve been to Microsoft multiple times and we met people from Amazon, we’ve gone to UW for these events, and you just meet so many girls in STEM and they all empower you if you’re not feeling your best, you see that the female population is growing and there’s a lot of power in that,” Spasova said.

For other girls interested in computer science and applying to competitive universities, Spasova and Sheldon shared their advice.

“You’re going to be so confused the whole time,” Spasova said. “You’re going to think one place is the right place and then the next week you’re going to fall in love with a new place and then you’re decisions are going to come out and it’s either going to go exactly the way you wanted it to, like us or you’re going to have to make decisions and choose favorites. In the end it’s so fun and the relief afterward is great.”

The seniors will soon join the 30% of females currently pursuing bachelor degrees from the UW.

“We just couldn’t be more excited for next year,” they said.

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