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  • Robert Lathers

Computer Science is for Girls: Portland High School Receives Computer Science Female Diversity Award

Pictured above (in no particular order) are Leah Nelson, Madison Luxmore, Maura Lufkin, Lilly Heyboer, Lexi Taylor, Liberty Pennington, and Jenasen Moffatt. They are all members of Portland High School's Advance Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles Course.

Portland High School has earned a 2019 College Board “Computer Science Female Diversity Award” for achieving high female representation in its Advance Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles Course. The award was given to 639 schools out of 20,000 institutions that offer AP Courses.

Sarah Honsowitz, Portland High’s Computer Science teacher told the Beacon, “There is a real push for Computer Science in High School Classes”. Honsowitz teaches three Introduction to Computers classes and one class of Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles. Nationwide most of these AP Computer Science classes are filled with male students. “Getting girls to take the AP Computer Science class and to actually think about a possible career in computer program and design is a hard sell”, according to Honsowitz who has been working hard to change that mindset at PHS.

Women make up only 26% of Computer Science and Mathematical Science professionals in the United States according to a 2012 report by the National Science Board. Young women encouraged by family and peers, who perceive of themselves as problem solvers, and have the opportunity to participate in Computer Science coursework are more likely to pursue careers in the field. According to the College Board a 2014 Google study found that women are more likely to pursue computer science if they are given the opportunity to explore it in high school.

Honsowitz, who is in her third year of teaching AP Computer Science says, “I love to instill problem solving processes with the kids. This is exciting for me. Getting kids to think that their ideas are valid and can work”. When she started the AP class only 20% of her students were girls the first year. In the second-year female participation increased to 30%. This year it began to approach 50%. That is the reason that the College Board AP awarded Portland High School with the Female Diversity Award.

“Girls often shy away from these type of courses”, Sarah said, “They perceive that it’s going to be boring and a bit difficult. But once they start the class, they realize that its interesting and fun.” Honsowitz describes the AP class as challenging and believes that it blends nicely with STEM education. What’s exciting for Sarah is the fact that it’s a hands-on curriculum. Students complete a research project on a computer innovation and also have to create a computer app. “They go from nothing to creating something (an app) and learning a lot along the way. Sometimes what they create doesn’t work. But, that’s part of learning, right?”, Honsowitz says with a smile and a shrug.

“Were proud to see the creativity, commitment, and enthusiasm our students have demonstrated in their study of AO Computer Science Principles,” said Christine Rockey, PHS Principal. “As educators and administrators, we believe a STEM education plays a crucial role in fostering a lifelong relationship with learning and setting all of our students on a path to success in a 21st Century workforce.”

Honsowitz is quick to credit her colleagues in the Portland School system who are working with and encouraging younger students. They include Angie Foote at Portland Middle School and Bob Powers at Oakwood and Westwood Elementary schools. In addition, former Portland teachers Deb Seal and Teri Keusch are facilitating a grant funded project, “Join the Girls Who Code Club”, at Portland Middle School.

“Portland High School is empowering young women to see themselves as creators, innovators, and problem-solvers,” Stefanie Sanford, College Board Global Policy Chief, wrote in the notice of the award to PHS Principal Christine Rockey. “We hope to see even more high schools inspire student to harness the potential of an AP computer science education”, Sanford concluded.

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