Diana’s secret for winning the National Center for Information Technology (NCWIT) Award for Aspirations in Computing was applying, even though at first she was not going to bother:
“My teacher told me to apply, but I thought I was not as impressive compared to other candidates. However, the judges must have been impressed, since I won the Aspirations in Computing in Southern California. I just talked about my school work in my Tech Academy class - the programming projects we did, the challenges with the LEGO Mindstorm robots and I spoke about my interest in connecting business with computer science to help students grow and be exposed to technology.”
Diana is a Dreamer and currently enrolled at University of California, Irvine. She was a new student at her school and was not confident in her skills as compared to other students in her technology class. However, she was one of only two senior girls that applied that year and they both received the award.
It takes self-confidence and a leap of faith to go for something new and unfamiliar. It is important to remember that not all students are spurred by self-motivation. Students don’t automatically connect the value of education to their own development, skills and personal interest. Many need to feel encouraged before they take a risk and try. This goes beyond announcing an opportunity in front of the class one time. This means being a constant cheerleader for the students and believing in them while they develop the confidence to believe in themselves. Even when we put opportunities in front of students it can be daunting for them to sit down and make it happen.
Google recently released Encouraging Students Toward Computer Science Learning; a report about the interest in and confidence to learn computer science (CS) among 7th to 12th-grade students from underrepresented groups — girls, Black students and Hispanic students — as well as the level of encouragement these groups receive from key influencers such as parents and teachers to learn CS.
The research resulted in the findings that “helping girls see their potential in the CS field and the many ways CS can connect to their potential dream jobs may help encourage more girls to pursue CS.”
Furthermore, as noted in NCWIT Girls in IT: The Facts, encouragement, by way of award recognition, for example, goes a long way. Research shows that encouragement is one of the most influential factors in girls’ decisions to pursue computing education and careers, even more important than self-assessments of ability. Never underestimate the power of this simple effort.
Validation outside of the classroom forces students to see how their skills and class projects make them a competitive applicant and future employee. The accolades and positive feedback from outside the classroom builds up confidence and actively combats an internal struggle with self-doubt.
Encouraging students means also providing a time and space to get started. While I was a high school computer science teacher in south Los Angeles, I provided class time to expose students to careers and mentors in computer science and taught them how to build up their personal networking circles to communicate their skills and interests. We had pep talks about the benefits to applying versus the guaranteed no when you don’t even try. We discussed what it meant to be prepared for when an opportunity comes their way and recognizing that the application process is not a waste of time. Writing samples essays and saving drafts of all applications makes it so much easier to apply for the next chance. Students should always have versions of resumes, cover letters, essay answers and more in a digital folder so they are never lost.
For example, I used to hold an afterschool session for girls to come together and brainstorm their Award for Aspirations in Computing application from NCWIT. This award recognizes U.S. high school women for their outstanding aptitude and interest in computing, proven leadership ability, and academic performance.
We hosted an application workshop with eleven girls to get them started on creating their online account and thinking through short answer responses as a group think. In the end, nine completed and turned in the application on time. Five of those girls were awarded, including a national winner. The next year we doubled those numbers using the same strategy and having the winners motivate others by telling them the secret of applying. Providing the time and space to get girls talking to each other and to get started overcame one of the biggest hurdles of staring at a blank page and dealing with self-doubt.
To get students to apply for internships, I worked with an English teacher. Students would update their resumes and write cover letters and short essays - a meaningful activity in itself - but with a deadline and actual application at hand it provided real world meaning. Doing this as a group and providing a format that made them collect the work digitally set them up for success when it was time to apply for future opportunities like personal statements for college applications, scholarships and other job openings.
The hardest part to putting yourself out there and taking a chance is getting started and believing in yourself. Encouraging students to take that first leap and supplying the time and safe space to get started sets students up for countless future opportunities. Even if they don’t succeed the first time, they are left with materials and resources to make the next chance that much easier and more accessible.