Lone Computer Science Major Works to Recruit More Women into Technology

Lone Computer Science Major Works to Recruit More Women into Technology

Student Vanessa Cansanas helps connect young girls to the computer science field through after-school programs

According to national statistics, Hispanic women make up less than one percent of the computing field. Rutgers computer science major, Vanessa Cansanas, hopes to increase that number in the future.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin

'In my research I saw that when computers were introduced to the home, they were introduced like a toy and gendered to be like a boy toy. The boys are more into the video games, they have more experience at a younger age to experiment and self-explore. They're either breaking apart a computer, or programming a video game.' 
 
 
Vanessa Cansanas

Vanessa Casanas stands out not only for her 3.9 GPA, but the fact she is the lone female honors student graduating Rutgers University-Newark with a major in computer science.

She is not only very aware of that fact, she has made it her mission to recruit more young women into the field.

Casanas teaches computer science to teen girls at an after-school club in Newark. When she chose her senior's thesis, Casanas plunged into researching why so few women have followed her path into computer science.

With degree in hand, Casanas intends to pursue a career as a computer program developer. But not by giving up on her commitment to recruit more young women into computer science.

"While I want to work and do stuff for me, I also want to get more females in the field," Casanas said. "I think it's needed."

Kinna Perry, who directs the honors program at Rutgers-Newark, alerted Casanas to the after-school teen-mentoring program.

"She literally jumped at the opportunity," Perry said. "She wants to have an impact on young ladies who are very much like her," said Perry.

Casanas's experience at Rutgers-Newark illuminates a number of problems that have bedeviled professionals in the world of computer science since the mid 1980s, before she was born.

The number of women nationally receiving undergraduate degrees in computer science shot up to 37 percent in 1984, but then went into a tailspin and now hovers around 18 percent, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. A Computing Research Association survey found decreases in the number of doctoral and master's degrees in computer science awarded to females at major research universities, and the number of women in academic positions in the field fell from 25 to 20 percent in just one year.

Casanas attended computer sciences classes at Rutgers-Newark with 40 students of whom no more than three or four were women. For her senior project at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, she was one of three women in a class of 130. And her professors? "Yeah, they were all men."

Casanas decided to translate her personal experience into her honors college senior's thesis by exploring why so few women pursue technology.

"In my research I saw that when computers were introduced to the home, they were introduced like a toy and gendered to be like a boy toy," she said. "The boys are more into the video games, they have more experience at a younger age to experiment and self-explore. They're either breaking apart a computer, or programming a video game."

A native of Colombia, Casanas arrived in Elizabeth at an early age, graduated Elizabeth High School's prestigious Upper Academy, and then enrolled at Rutgers-Newark intending to pursue a major in mathematics. During her first year at Rutgers, she took a class in internal programming and found herself intrigued with its focus on problem solving.

"They teach you the syntax of the program, and then you use what you learn to solve whatever problem they give you," she said. "I wanted to learn more, so I took a second programming class. I thought, you know what, maybe I can do this."

At the start of her senior year, Casanas received an email from Perry advising her about Girls Who Code clubs offered at West Side Park Middle School and North Star Academy, two Newark charter schools. Created by women who work in computer science, the after-school clubs provide girls in grades 6 through 12 the opportunity to learn how computers work.

Since the fall, Casanas has been teaching six high school girls at North Star Academy and 20 middle school girls at West Side Park. She describes her charges as straight-A students who are up to the challenge of learning new things.

Perry said Casanas has been a hit in the after-school programs because she comes across as a peer to the young girls.

"Here's this girl, she's only a few years older than me and look at all the stuff she knows. I can do this stuff too," Perry said. "Her story is not that dissimilar from their stories because they're often told that they can't or they shouldn't or they're just not encouraged to do something."

As a woman who speaks a second language, the career prospects in computer science should be outstanding for Casanas, particularly if she is willing to travel internationally, Perry said. In fact, Hispanic women make up just 1 percent of the nation's computing workforce, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

Casanas said her professional goal is to become a computer program developer. But her immediate focus is on recruiting more young women into the field of computer science.

"Her very presence could be the catalyst to propel one or two, three or four of these young ladies to pursue this particular avenue," said Perry. "Hopefully in another few years I'll get another Vanessa."