When I was 11 years old, my family had a shared desktop computer that sat in our living room. I decided that since I was old enough to have homework on the weekends, it was time for me to assert my independence by having my own laptop. It was time for my AIM conversations to be private from my brother, and my neopets account was getting way too serious for the family computer. My mother disagreed. After some back and forth, I decided that it was no longer up to her, I was going to do everything it took to buy my own computer. So I started babysitting as often as I could. But unfortunately for me, the apple of my eye, the iBook G4, was not coming my way anytime soon if I was just making $30-40 every few weekends. It was time to act.
I loved making jewelry so I started selling off my necklaces and bracelets to friends and family and whomever would give me their attention. It was around this time that my mom introduced me to Yahoo’s GeoCities, which allowed you to build websites without any programming experience. We also took an HTML class online together. I thought to myself– “Great! Now I can post pictures of my jewelry online and sell it to more people that way!” Note that I wasn’t thinking, “Oh cool, I’ll learn how to program so that I can become a software engineer when I grow up,” which may or may not have been my mom’s intention in introducing me to the internet in the first place. It never once crossed my mind that I was learning how to program. I wasn’t thinking about how I’d start to understand the infrastructure of the web. As far as I was concerned, I was going to be a ballet teacher, and what my mom did as a software engineer, which more accurately was to stare at a computer and sometimes type things, was dull. Instead, I was thinking exactly about how the internet and this web site I was building could help me with my jewelry business.
Well, it turns out the jewelry business was a flop. I probably made about $100 total and spent even more buying supplies. But I learned how to build a website. I learned what it meant to host a website, I learned what a domain name was. I learned how URLs worked and, most importantly, I learned that programming is not scary– all this because I wanted to make some money to buy a laptop.
A year and a half and one business venture later, I bought myself an iBook G4. I got a hold of Adobe creative suite and I got lost and swept up in graphic design. During high school, I helped out in a Physics lab playing with some cover art using my newly minted photoshop skills. It was there that I also learned to code in Matlab and Java for the first time. I didn’t take my first Computer Science class until my senior year of High School, and was pretty insistent on not studying it when I started college. Yet, I found myself repeatedly drawn to the field so much that I inevitably found myself majoring in it. While studying Computer Science at the academic level, I fell more and more in love with the field. I found it a rich and fascinating area of study with so many difficult yet engrossing problems, many of which are still unsolved or can be proved to be unsolvable (which I think is so awesome). If I think back though, I may have never even considered studying CS had I not tried to create a website to sell my jewelry a decade earlier.
Computer Science is not necessarily an end. We won’t get more computer science graduates if we fail to teach how computer science can be applied to more than just math and advanced science. If presented instead as a tool, just like writing is a tool for expressing our thoughts and art is a tool for expressing emotions, we have the potential to capture the attentions of so many more people, boys and girls alike. We can take a subject or a problem that would usually be interesting to someone outside the stereotypical nerdy white boy hacker and present a way to enhance or solve it with computer science. For me it was developing a website for my jewelry business, for others it could be figuring out how to write a script to send text messages to your friends on their birthdays– or anything really. The point is, we should present Computer Science as the useful and practical tool that it is, not some ridiculously difficult to attain skill set that only white or asian boys who play video games all day and who have been attached to technology since before they were born have.