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Blugold women embrace opportunities in computer science

Two soon-to-be graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire have some advice for women considering studying computer science — just do it! 

"Women were the pioneers of computer science, and I think we need to take the field back," says Kristin Steele, who will graduate this month with a degree in computer science-software engineering and a minor in Japanese. "You can be the one who shows the world that computers aren't just for guys."

At UW-Eau Claire, just 14 of the 226 computer science majors, or about six percent, are women. UW-Eau Claire's numbers reflect a nationwide decline since the 1980s in the number of females studying CS even though career opportunities in the field continue to grow.

Misperceptions about computer programmers and a lack of early exposure to computer science may keep some women from pursuing a career in what they say is a challenging, interesting and high-demand field, say Steele and Natalie Wolf, who also will graduate in May.

"I think that computer programmers are very inaccurately portrayed on TV and in movies," says Steele, a native of Winona, Minnesota. "We aren't all nerdy guys that write gibberish in green text on a black screen in a dark basement somewhere. I think that girls are caught up by that image. Along with that, computers have been marketed primarily toward men since the 1980s. I believe that if more computer science classes are offered at a younger age — and I mean coding classes, not just teaching students how to type — girls would be less afraid of joining the field. Before I took coding classes, I thought CS looked really difficult and a little scary. If we give women some experience in it, it might not look as challenging and unattainable." 

Helping students see computer science as a major that can easily be paired with other academic areas also may encourage more people — including women — to pursue CS degrees, says Wolf, who will graduate with degrees in computer science-software engineering and graphic design and a minor in mathematics. 

"Most people are shocked to hear that I am also an art major since it seems so different than computer programming," says Wolf, of Hopkins, Minnesota. "I find them to be quite similar, which is why I like both. You have to be able to solve problems and visualize the concept or computer. There are often many ways art or code can turn out with some solutions more elegant than others. In both fields, you create something from scratch using only the tools provided. I love that about my majors." 

Both say UW-Eau Claire has prepared them well to succeed in a high-demand field that will allow them to pursue their multiple passions. 

Steele already has accepted an offer from a Twin Cities-based company to work as a consultant, a position she's excited for because it will allow her to work on different types of projects at several companies. Wolf hopes to eventually head to the West Coast after graduation. 

In the weeks before their graduation, Kristin Steele and Natalie Wolf shared their thoughts about pursuing careers in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field.

How did you decide on computer science as a major?  

Kristin: My love for computers started early on in life. It has always been one of my father's hobbies, and I have been helping him dismantle computers since I was born. I was also lucky enough to have taken computer science courses in high school. I didn't realize until I started at the university that I was extremely fortunate to have prior experience in the field as most of my classmates came into it completely blind. I wouldn't say that I've always dreamed of being a computer scientist but I am definitely very happy that I've chosen this career path and I feel like it is the best fit for me. 

Natalie: I actually wanted to become an artist. I wanted to attend an art school and pursue my BFA. However, my parents were very generous and decided to support my education on the condition that I pick a liberal arts university and another major in addition to art. I had taught myself some HTML in high school and I liked the logic behind it, so I signed up for a class at my first university. I really liked the problem solving and creativity behind programming. I ended up transferring to UWEC to have more opportunities in graphic design and programming.

What is it about computer science that intrigues, challenges or interests you?

Kristin: My favorite part about computer science is that it's like solving a puzzle that keeps growing and changing. It intrigues me that this field is continually evolving and that there are countless opportunities in computer science for people who are interested in other disciplines as well. For example, geography and biology are two other sciences that heavily use technology and have many jobs for computer scientists. I think it is amazing that our help can play such a big role in other fields of study. 

Tell us about being a CS major at UWEC.

Kristin: My experience as a CS major at UWEC has been absolutely wonderful. I honestly don't think I could have picked a better major to be in at this university. The professors in our department have been the most encouraging, helpful and friendly bunch of people I have ever met. Their support as well as the support from my friends and classmates is what has helped me succeed the most during my time at UWEC. That being said, the most challenging aspect of this program is the course work. These professors may be fantastic but they sure do know how to dish out a challenging set of assignments. I guess that is part of what makes them great. They really want to challenge students to help them grow as computer scientists. 

Natalie: My experience as a CS major is so positive here. The students are such a great support network since we are often in the lab late in the morning working on assignments. Almost every project is group work, so you get really close with your classmates. The problems themselves can be challenging (especially if you do not start early enough — I learned that the hard way). But, when you have that "aha" moment, it makes the struggle worth it.

There aren't a lot of women in CS on our campus or on campuses across the country? Why do you think that is?

Natalie: I recently read an article that looked at the marketing of computers in the 80s. Companies were often targeting males as their audience, and I think this initial step pushed women away from computers. Today, you still see movies and TV shows with the geeky guy that does not know how to socialize. I encourage pretty much everyone I know to watch the TV show Arrow. A prominent character is Felicity Smoak — an IT girl that completely breaks the stereotype. I think seeing women in CS in the media will help change these aspects. 

What would you tell other women considering CS as a major?

Kristin: You can do it. In my experience, most girls in CS end up quitting because they think it's too hard or that they don't belong in it because it's a guy's field. Other majors are equally as difficult and we need to show them that this isn't just a guy's field. Women were the pioneers of computer science and I think we need to take the field back. You can be the one who shows the world that computers aren't just for guys. If you do choose to become a CS major, there is a group on campus called WITS (Women in Information Technology Systems) that is tailored to women in computer science. Even if clubs aren't your thing, I would suggest finding other women in CS and using your shared experiences to fuel your drive for the field. I have found that it is really important to help and encourage each other to be successful. 

Natalie: Pursuing a CS major will not be easy, but if you work hard and love to problem solve, the end result will be rewarding. The nice thing about computer science is it touches every other field. If you like biology, you can look at bio-informatics. If you like art (like me), you can do front-end programming or UI/UX design. If you like foreign languages, I have written programs to conjugate verbs in Spanish. There is a lot you can do with the major! 

What is your dream job and how will this degree help you get there?

Kristin: At the moment, I can say that I am very interested in mobile app development and my preferred job would probably have to be something involving that. I can't say for sure what my all-time dream job would be simply because technology is always changing and I will continually be finding new innovations that would be fantastic to work with so my preferences will change throughout my career. My degree in computer science has given me a strong foundation in computers, and it will continue to help as a base for any technology that I may be working with. 

Natalie: My dream job is becoming a User Experience designer. Basically, you research how people use your product (what buttons they click, which pages they visit, etc.) and you design the user interface to give the user the best experience. You need to have a design background and coding background to know what is feasible and what is not, which is why a CS degree helps. 

Anything else you want to add?

Kristin: Just because we need more women in computer science doesn't mean that we don't want men also. Anyone should have the opportunity to be in computer science, and there is truly a place for everyone in this field.