Computer science has traditionally been a male-dominated field, but Cullman High School has been recognized as a school that has taken a step toward closing the gender gap.
CHS was one of 36 Alabama schools and 1,119 national schools to receive the AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award from The College Board for achieving either 50 percent or higher female examinee representation in the AP Computer Science Principles course.
Computer Science teacher John Drake said he was happy to see the school recognized with the honor, but winning an award is secondary to knowing that there are more opportunities opening up for CHS students.
“I wasn’t trying for an award,” he said. “We just wanted to have equal representation, to try to have as many females as males, and always encourage, never discourage.”
Drake said he has attended workshops that continue to encourage diversity among the students who take AP computer science courses, including the Computer Science Principles course that CHS offers.
“Computer Science Principles is pushing for complete diversity and availability to all classes of people no matter your social status, your economic status, wherever you are in society, to really give you a chance to take a computer science class,” he said.
Drake said the school had a computer science class before 2010, but it had gone away for several years, and the return of the class was actually driven by one of his former students, 2016 graduate Jennifer Glover.
He said Glover first came to him for help in an online computer class she was taking and then asked him to teach a computer class at the high school.
Drake said he encouraged Glover to bring in some more students who were interested in the class, and after working with school and system administration, the class is here to stay.
“The rest is history, because it’s never gone away again,” he said.
Drake said another female student, 2020 graduate Taleah Sadler was another student who pushed for the program’s success, and both Glover and Sadler were recipients of the National Center for Women & Information Technology’s Award for Aspirations in Computing while they were at CHS.
“There were really two young women who really pushed this class along,” he said. “I’m glad they were here, I’m glad they pushed it, and that gives everyone an opportunity.”
He also credited the Cullman High School Principal Kim Hall, Cullman City Schools Superintendent Susan Patterson and the members of the Cullman City School Board for working together to provide computer science classes for the city’s students.
“We could not have the computer science class and not have the diversity in the program and not have students who are successful if they had just said ‘No, let’s not do that right now,’” he said. “It really is about the administration.”
Drake said he has had several students go on to college and careers in computer fields, and whether it’s going to a four-year school to be a computer engineer or learning coding for a support position, there are some great job opportunities, Drake said.
“It’s a no-brainer to get something in that avenue,” he said.
Entering a computer science field can be lucrative, but right now, there is still a large gap in the gender of those who do so.
Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the median annual wage for computer and information technology occupations was $88,240 in May 2019. However, a code.org analysis of 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that women represent just 24 percent of the 5 million people in computing occupations.
Drake said he encourages everyone — male or female — who asks about computer science to take the course and consider a job in that field, and one of the biggest ways to promote diversity in the class is just showing female students that they can succeed in a field that many women don’t go into.
“It’s about making sure they know they have that opportunity,” he said. “Whereas in the past it’s been dominated by males.”
Drake said some students already know what they want to do when they get out of high school, so they know what courses to take to prepare for that field, but the majority of high school students are still trying to figure out their path.
Computer science classes may be intimidating in college, so encouraging students to take them in high school can open them up to interests and opportunities that they didn’t know they had, he said.
“A lot of students who take it say, ‘Yeah, I can handle this, I can do this,’” he said.