Turning the Tides for STEM in Washington State

Things worth doing are rarely easy, and the step to theoretical work from small programming projects can be a large one. And particularly for women, retention in computer science and other STEM subjects is a real problem during the college years.
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Washington State has long boasted some technology titans. Over time, the state has also built up a critical mass of professionals and educators passionate about sharing the power of science and technology careers -- particularly computer science -- with a new generation.

But for many years, progress was slow or even backwards. The dot-com bust in 2001 was followed by a sharp drop in interest and enrollment in CS programs, with little subsequent improvement for nearly a decade. (Though dated, this post covers the phenomenon fairly well.)

From the outside, it might seem hard to believe that a city as rich in technology as Seattle could also face these sorts of problems. And yet urban and rural schools in particular found it hard to fund classes and keep up enrollment.

Still, even early on, Washington boasted a few STEM programs ahead of their time. The Technology Access Foundation was a very early pioneer, working for the cause since the late 1990s. Just before the first dot-com bust, Microsoft launched their DigiGirlz tech camp for girls, a free program that now takes place in 10 locations across the world every year. At around the same time, IGNITE (Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution) was founded in the Seattle School District, an effort to connect girls with role models in science and technology -- from its modest beginnings it now impacts thousands of girls each year (though funding is now at risk).

After a long journey, things have really picked up speed in the last few years. In 2010, a group of Microsoft employees launched the TEALS program (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools), where Microsoft employees and other CS professionals serve as part-time computer science teachers for classes that would otherwise be unavailable at many schools. And in 2011, Washington STEM was founded -- a nonprofit backed by some of the biggest names in the Seattle tech industry -- and began funding promising smaller organizations.

(One thing should be clear from any article on STEM advocacy -- we computer scientists do love our acronyms.)

As it turns out, this convergence has reached another milestone in our region. The Seattle Times last week reported:

"The number of incoming freshmen who listed computer science as their desired major has more than doubled in just three years at the University of Washington... Western Washington University has seen the number of its computer science majors and pre-majors double in two years."

This is all extremely encouraging news for STEM advocates in Seattle and Washington in general. As a woman in computer science, I'm particularly excited that two of the three of the students profiled in the article are female. These statistics from Washington are far more pronounced than the recent national trend, which has been approximately 10 percent increases in CS enrollment year-over-year (according to the Computing Research Association).

However, I was also saddened to learn that some local organizations may be taking these early victories to mean that funding can be reduced, that the fight is won. That's the same mistake we made back in the early millennium when we assumed the lucrative job market spoke for itself -- and it's taken us years to recover. We need to see this through. Not just to continue to encourage new students, but to support the students taking the leap and inspire them to inspire a new generation. It appears there's movement in the Washington State legislature to increase support for STEM programs in high schools, which is an encouraging sign for our momentum.

It's also important to remember that enrollment isn't the only metric that matters. The fact is that computer science is, for many students, a very challenging journey. Things worth doing are rarely easy, and the step to theoretical work from small programming projects can be a large one. And particularly for women, retention in computer science and other STEM subjects is a real problem during the college years. Now that we're reaching critical mass, it'll be easier for students to slip through the cracks. College students in STEM still benefit from mentoring, internships, and peer support. The Huffington Post's own mentoring pilot this past semester is a great example of an effort to provide that support to students in that next stage of their journey.

Of course, the Seattle Times article points out that the increased interest is becoming a bit of a bottleneck at the state's top universities. But computer science shouldn't be limited to just top universities -- not if we're going to meet the projected demand for technology professionals in the future. How do we bring college-level opportunities to all the students who desire to study CS or engineering in degree programs?

Congratulations to Washington State for such an encouraging trend. Don't stop now.

And to advocates in other states: While we still have much to figure out, the myriad programs and legislation at play in Washington State today are great models for building your own future. Remember: none of this happens overnight. It's a long but important journey that will empower future generations to take the future head-on.

(Full disclosure: I served on the Board of the aforementioned IGNITE program for two years and continue to volunteer with IGNITE, DigiGirlz, and TEALS as time permits. I am also a participant in the HuffPo STEM mentoring program.)

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