Breaking the Code by Robbin Koenig

In 2014, I had the opportunity to enroll in a 10-week free coding class. This was the second time this class was offered, and it focused on website development, the trendy new skill at the time, and was accessible enough for anyone to learn the basics. The course targeted the underserved, women and minorities.

Back then, my computer abilities included surfing, shopping, and writing documents. I didn’t know the difference between “back-end” and “front-end,” let alone, “directories” and “trees.” To me, a “child” was a biological unit that gave me a lot of housework.

After I finished this course, my knowledge of computer science went from zero to . . . let’s not exactly say hero, but it increased my understanding about how computers work by 1000 percent. I continued learning on my own and with other students from my course. I really enjoyed exercising my brain by learning something completely new and proving Jerzy Konorski’s theory of neural plasticity.

At some point, I learned about an opportunity to volunteer at a hackathon for underprivileged high school students. As a former high school teacher, I thought this might be a good experience to combine my newly acquired coding skills with my teaching abilities. Since I had received instruction in coding for free, I wanted to give back to my community.

The students were divided into groups, sitting at tables with two group leaders. All of the leaders were computer-savvy Millennials with high tech backgrounds and worked for Twitter, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech companies. They could all code a thousand times better than me. The organizers and the other group leaders were all male, except for me. As the only “Mom type” in the room, I was pretty much ignored.

My group consisted of all junior/senior teenage boys and one ninth-grade girl. I think I can safely say that the lone girl and I felt intimidated by all the testosterone in the room. We instantly bonded over our mutual feelings of awkwardness through our shared fish-out-of-water situation. My co-leader worked with the boys and I worked with this girl. I learned that she was interested in Greek mythology and we talked about our favorite characters and stories. After brainstorming, I helped her to create her first website, dedicated to Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom and war. This was several years before the release of the movie, Wonderwoman, the ultimate girl-power film which has become a piece of contemporary pop-culture inspiring girls to empower themselves in a male-dominated world.

I subsequently continued to volunteer at STEM-related workshops for students through different organizations. At each event, I noticed an increase in female participants, or rather a return of girls becoming interested in computer science. Historically, women have always been active in the field of computer science, with the largest numbers of women majoring in computer science in 1984 at 34 percent. Some theorize that the decline of women in the field was caused by marketing home personal computers to boys and men, giving them an advantage of experience when the PC was introduced in schools.

I have no illusions that I will ever become a software engineer or be employed in high-tech. Computer science is just a hobby for me. The challenges give me a chance to flex my cognitive muscles, while improving that all-important neuroplasticity. My guilty pleasure is the self-satisfaction I get when I show a little kid how to “talk to a computer.”

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