'I think I can do it': Middle school girls learn to build a computer at Webster University | St. Louis Public Radio

'I think I can do it': Middle school girls learn to build a computer at Webster University

Oct 21, 2017

Webster University held a workshop Saturday to introduce middle school girls to computer science and cybersecurity, with a goal of encouraging them to pursue careers in the field.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, less than 20 percent of the country’s cybersecurity analysts are women. The field is expected to grow rapidly in the next decade.

At the workshop, Webster faculty taught 24 eighth-graders from the St. Louis area how to build and program a small computer known as a Raspberry Pi. MasterCard donated the computers for the students to take home.

Nyra Morrow is a middle schooler from Carr Lane VPA Middle School in the St. Louis Public school district. She said it was kind of hard to put the computer together, but programming it was easier.

“I’m going to have to take it apart to get it home, and then put it back together when I get home alone,” Morrow said. “I think I can do it.”

Quen Agnew, a director of corporate relations at Webster, said Morrow and the other girls were selected for the workshop because they have an interest in math and science, and attend schools that are predominantly African-American.

“We felt like it was very important when we put this initiative together to be able to offer opportunities to schools that normally don’t get a chance to participate in events of this sort,” Agnew said. “So many of these [cybersecurity] jobs go unfilled by women, especially women of color.”

Less than 10 percent of cybersecurity analysts are black, according to the Department of Labor.

Savannah Allen of Carr Lane VPA Middle School in the St. Louis public school district builds a computer at workshop for middle school girls offered by Webster University.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

In addition to teaching the girls to build and program a Raspberry Pi, Webster professors told the eighth graders about career opportunities in cyber security, noting there aren't enough women in the field.

Jim Curtis, an assistant professor in math and computer science, said studies show that women generally write cleaner and more elegant computer code.

“I think the reason is because they tend to take the coding process in a more natural and pure sense,” Curtis said. “When we don’t tell reviewers of code whether it was written by a man or a woman, the code written by women tends to be considered of higher grade quality. When we do tell them who it was written by, a man or a woman, then they tend to have a slant toward the man.”

Simone Cummings, the dean of Webster’s school of business and technology, said it would be nice for the girls to enroll at Webster after high school, but that’s not the reason the private college held the workshop.

Webster offers a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree in cyber security.

“Whether they come to Webster, or whether they go anywhere else, we want them to consider a career in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” Cummings said. “As you are probably aware, women are grossly underrepresented in STEM careers, and we want them to have an opportunity to experience STEM in a fun, interactive way.”

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