(Photo by Flickr user Jeannine Keefer, used under a Creative Commons license)
It was during her required freshman writing class at Temple University, watching her classmates pass around a “talking stick,” part of one of those group brainstorming exercises, when Becca Refford seriously started considering dropping out of school.
Refford, a computer science major, was volunteering at nonprofit TechGirlz and interning with Chariot Solutions spinoff Haydle at the time, and she couldn’t stop thinking about all the emails in her inbox, all the work she couldn’t get to because she was sitting in class, sharing her feelings.
A little over a year later, Refford headed to the financial aid department and filed the paperwork to leave school.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” she said.
Staying in school — she realized — had been tearing her apart.
Refford, 21, of Downingtown, is happier now. She’s part of a new paid apprenticeship program at Chariot Solutions where she spends 10 hour a week doing administrative work and 20 hours a week learning Java. (It calls to mind Tonic Design’s “minion” program.) She felt that Temple’s curriculum was too heavy on theory and not strong enough on practice. Many of her friends in their third and fourth year in Temple’s computer science department haven’t written a line of code outside of basic Java, she said.
“There was so much discussion of riding the bike,” she said, “and no riding the bike.”
It’s not a new phenomenon for technologists to forgo college for more hands-on experience. The Philly tech scene has a vocal handful who advocate against college for those who want to enter the tech sector.
Dr. Justin Shi, associate chair of Temple’s Computer and Information Sciences Department, has heard students’ complaints first-hand, too. In 2007, two computer science students came to his office to tell him that they were dropping out. They just weren’t learning what they wanted to learn. It was an eye-opening experience for Shi.
After that, he worked to get more hands-on courses into the curriculum.
Shi added courses for mobile and web programming and launched a digital media minor, less focused on theory and more focused on tech’s applications. One of the students who came to his office that day, Henry Paradiz, actually helped put the new courses together. (Paradiz, who didn’t end up dropping out, also spent some time working at Alfano’s company, Jarvus.)
Still, “progress is slow,” Shi said.
For example, Temple’s computer science program still requires Calculus 1 and 2. It turns a lot of students off and isn’t really necessary to become a developer, Shi admits. These aren’t problems specific to Temple, he said. They plague most computer science programs.
That’s because, he said, these types of academic programs were created to cater to an elite few. They weren’t tailored for the masses. As technology has started to touch every part of our lives, university programs haven’t caught up.
“It’s totally wrong,” Shi said. “In my opinion, it’s really off.”
Another reason academic programs haven’t caught up? The importance of publishing in academic journals when it comes to getting tenure, he said. If you’re a young faculty member trying to get tenure, you have to get your work published. Those kinds of papers are largely driven by theory, Shi said.
There was also one non-academic issue that drove Refford away from Temple: she didn’t feel that her academic advisor was supportive of her pursuing technology.
Her freshman year, Refford struggled with calculus and visited her advisor to talk about it. Her advisor said she had seen this with other young women at Temple and suggested Refford switch majors to something less technical. Business, maybe?
It left a sour taste in Refford’s mouth. She wondered if a male counterpart would have gotten the same spiel. She had also been around a handful of strong women in tech, like TechGirlz founder Tracey Welson-Rossman and former Philly Startup Leaders events director Gloria Bell, who had nothing but support for her interest in technology. That’s why it felt like a red flag.
While it’s not clear that Refford’s experience with her advisor is representative of the experience of other women undergrads, one thing is for sure: women aren’t graduating with computer science degrees as frequently as men. Eighteen percent of computer science grads were women in 2012.
Just over five months out of Temple, Refford feels like she’s learned as much about Java as she would have in a semester at school. She’s excited to start taking what she’s learned to build a TechGirlz curriculum.
One of the best moments, she said, was at Chariot Solutions’ developer-heavy Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference earlier this year, which she’s helped organize for the past three years. Even though she’s been part of it for a while, she said she still couldn’t understand some of the names of the talks. It was different this year.
“It was amazing to go this year and get it,” she said.