Cracking the code – one Sixth Former’s experience of computer science

By GDST

Computer science has traditionally been viewed as a subject ‘for the boys’. Here Ellie Sheehan, a Sixth Former at Bromley High School, debunks that myth and explains why it’s a great option for girls too.

When I initially started the first year of my GCSEs, computer science was not one of my subjects. My year group was the first to have the option of taking computer science, but I played it safe and picked subjects with which I was more familiar. The reason I decided to change one of my GCSEs – geography – after the first six weeks of term was my lack of enthusiasm for the subject (sorry Mrs Pradic!).  

I was given two options: classical civilisation and computer science. I didn’t know anything about computer science but liked the sound of it and the idea of trying something new appealed to me. I will be the first to admit I lack confidence, so to change from a ‘safe’ subject to one that was (to me at least) unknown, was quite scary. 

Starting the course late meant that it took me a while to catch up with the other girls. I spent half the term trying to understand the terminology and on commencing lessons, I just did not understand the concepts straightaway. However, I was determined to persevere and I worked hard to familiarise myself with the new computer language. In fact, I used my textbook so much that when I had finished with it, the book had lost most of its original colour!

I am now nearing the end of Year 12 and have absolutely loved my first year of A Level Computer Science. The knowledge gleaned from the GCSE course has been of such great value and I have put it to good use at A Level, whilst obviously learning new concepts.

As a result of a successful GCSE in Computer Science I opted to do an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification). My finalised essay title is How Important was Alan Turing’s Paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ published in 1950?. I happen to be the only pupil in my school who chose A Level Computer Science. The one-to-one tuition has been invaluable.

My confidence has grown enormously, especially when I successfully solve a coding problem. For those of you who have experienced this, you’ll understand how it can be incredibly frustrating when your code will not work, simply because you have missed a closing bracket or misspelt something.

Eventually, when you’ve cracked it, it gives you a feeling of immense satisfaction, as well as relief!  This is what motivates me to continually pursue my interest in computer science. I would love to continue computer science at University, as I believe I have learnt invaluable skills which I want to continue putting to good use.

I strongly believe that it is vital for girls and women to pursue studies and careers in computer science, to ensure equality in this sector.  It is the only field in science, engineering and mathematics in which the number of women receiving Bachelor Degrees, has decreased since 2002 – despite slight increases in recent years. Women have historically chosen lower-paid, yet fulfilling careers such as journalism and teaching, whereas men have chosen high-paying careers like computer science and engineering.

I think the fear of the unknown, or of the different, is what holds a lot of girls back from trying something new.

Ellie Sheehan, Sixth Former at Bromley High School

This was exemplified by a scene in the recent 2017 film ”Hidden Figures”.  Head NASA engineer Paul Stafford, refuses the request of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), to attend an editorial meeting about John Glenn’s upcoming mission: to become the first American to orbit the Earth.  Stafford’s response is dismissive – “There’s no protocol for women attending.”  Johnson replies “There’s no protocol for a man circling Earth either, Sir.” 

This quotation underlines the barriers that women faced historically, but it is also present still today.  For NASA to get John Glenn into space and home safely, institutions that supported prejudices and biases needed to start tumbling down.  All hands (and brains) had to be on deck and this is similar in today’s society if we want to achieve the best we can.

Finally, I think the fear of the unknown, or of the different, is what holds a lot of girls back from trying something new.  The expectation to conform to certain stereotypes is something that I think, we as girls and women, can relate to. Computer science has a reputation of being a subject that’s ‘only for boys’ and I believe this is what drives girls away from choosing it.  But what if you were to be different?  What if you were to defy the rules and expectations of others?  Choose something that fascinates and intrigues you and you will be surprised how much you like it.

Of course, computer science is an incredibly technical subject and will always be a challenge, but then it wouldn’t be as interesting if it wasn’t.  If you do not understand at first, you have to ask for help, guidance and advice.  The number of times you ask for help does not define your inability, your ability, or your IQ – but it highlights your determination to understand and succeed with a passionate subject of your choice. Which if anything, shows your resilience and character to others.