ROCHESTER — When Eric Dirks encourages students to take his computer science class at Mayo High School, he often uses his wife, Emily, as an example of where it can take them. A Mayo grad herself, she received a push in the right direction from a teacher who went on to mold the trajectory of her career.
After graduating high school, she studied computer science at Taylor University. From there, she went on to work at IBM in Rochester. That all started with a tap on the shoulder from a math teacher who asked if she wanted to learn how to code.
“Taking that class and finding out she could enjoy coding was absolutely pivotal (for her future career),” Dirks said. “That’s actually part of my inspiration for why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Dirks is now helping educate the next generation of computer scientists. As part of that process, Mayo High School received the College Board AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award. The school received the recognition for expanding the access of female students to computer science courses.
Interest in computer science has grown significantly in recent years. According to a press release from Rochester Public Schools, participation in AP computer science classes has increased 103% nationwide since 2017. Female participation in the specific course AP Computer Science A has increased 39% nationwide since the same year.
When Dirks first started teaching the class in 2016-17, there were three female students out of the total class of 17. Last year, there were 17 female students in the class of 31, representing more than 50% of the group.
One of the students in the class, Christine Song, said it’s a “humble yet strong experience” to be part of a generation of women entering fields in which they historically haven’t had a lot of representation.
“They’re getting into things they’re actually interested in rather than the stereotypes society has set,” Song said about women in the STEM fields.
Dirks said the class at Mayo is the equivalent of an Intro to Coding course that computer science majors would take in college. Although it’s an AP course, it doesn’t require students to have any previous coding experience, Dirks said.
Throughout the course, they cover concepts like “variants” and “control structures,” learning how to store and display data, as well as how to configure code to let the user input data.
Mayo junior Eleanora Williams is the daughter of two computer engineers, but she had never coded before taking Dirks’ class. She enjoys the fact that she can see a useful result for her effort.
“In math, you’re not really doing anything with your answer. You just have a number,” Williams said. “But here, you see the finished product.”
Part of the cycle is no doubt self-driving. As more female students enter computer science, more interest and participation builds in the class among other students, Dirks said.
But, he also believes it’s important to be an advocate for the program. Dirks has gone into the school’s math classes to speak to students about taking the computer science class. He’s even had some of his existing students go speak to other classes about taking computer science.
And that just may be the start of the story for the next computer scientist.
“Extending that invitation has been very important,” Dirks said. “We need to give our kids the best exposure to this so they can at least find out if they like it.”