Tina Ostrander, a software development instructor at Green River College, sees a promising future for men and women in the fast-growing tech industry. COURTESY PHOTO, Steve Sosa

Closing the gender gap in tech at Green River

How the college plans to reach equal female/male enrollment in software development

  • Monday, February 27, 2017 6:10pm
  • News

By Andy Orr/Program manager at Green River College

When Tina Ostrander joined Green River College in 2014 to help launch a bachelor’s degree in software development, she set a lofty goal for the program: reach 50/50 female/male enrollment by 2020.

“Software development is one of the fastest growing fields in the country. It doesn’t make any sense to have half the workforce missing out economically on the advantages software careers have to offer,” Ostrander said. “Women are oftentimes deterred from pursuing tech careers, especially in their formative years, so we at Green River see it as a core mission to create a degree program and a student experience that not only excites, but retains, women in computing pathways.”

Ostrander knows from experience. With more than 20 years of computer science and web development teaching experience, she’s graduated countless students who have gone on to pursue exciting careers in tech. Her own daughter, Hannah, also studied computer science and now works as a technical product manager at Expedia.

In launching a four-year degree in software development at a community college like Green River, Ostrander and her team are uniquely positioned to help diverse and other economically disadvantaged students obtain skills leading to high-demand tech jobs.

“As a community college,” said Ostrander, “Green River offers affordable tuition and flexible schedules, which makes it a hotbed for diversity. Many people may not know this, but Green River was also named TIME’s most diversified college of 2015 and three of its four campuses sit squarely within the state’s most diverse county (King). All of which makes it a perfect context for recruiting more women and other under-represented minorities into computing pathways.”

Lack of diversity in tech is certainly a problem. Today, women represent about 16 percent of computer science graduates across the U.S. The tech world is also a boys’ club in many ways, with only 28 percent of proprietary software jobs held by women, and only 5 percent of tech start-ups owned by women.

As for Green River’s software development program, it’s well on its way to the 50/50 goal. Women currently account for 33 percent of enrollments, and with a growing pipeline of incoming students, there is potential to continue increasing that figure.

Attracting and retaining students

From running a popular web and mobile development meetup that connects students with industry professionals, to offering a robust menu of intro courses every quarter that provide hands-on opportunities to learn popular technologies like HTML, CSS, SQL, JavaScript, and Python, Ostrander and her team have a multi-pronged strategy for attracting and retaining students.

“The goal, whether we’re teaching an intro course or running a meetup or volunteering at a local STEM event, is to always provide a memorable and positive first experience,” Ostrander said. “Those initial encounters can often make the difference in setting a student on a course to a career in tech.”

Another key factor in attracting and retaining students is project-based learning. According to Ostrander, an applied, experiential focus that gives students the opportunity to write software solving a real-world problem reinforces the why, builds confidence, and helps students begin developing a professional identity in their field before they enter the job market. Working in small teams also keeps students connected to one another, forming a safety net of accountability and support.

“Hands-on learning is our secret sauce to student retention and success. From building websites for local non-profits, web apps for local teachers, tools to help people find technical internships, or mobile apps for use on campus, our students build and deliver working software to real-world clients throughout their degree program. Project-based learning not only gives students practical experience working in teams and negotiating the dynamics of client relationships, it also yields a robust portfolio of work students can show to prospective employers after graduation.”

While exclusive university computer science programs often require sky-high GPAs to be considered for admission, Green River’s software development program meets students where they are. User-friendly entrance requirements cast a wider net to capture untapped tech talent.

Said Ostrander: “You don’t have to be a 4.0 wunkerkind. You don’t have to be a geeky white dude. You don’t have to complete a full sequence of calculus and physics to be considered for admission. If you want it badly enough and if you work hard, we will help you achieve your goals. We’re here for the scrappers, not the silver spoons.”

The goal is 50/50 female/male enrollment. Much work remains to be done, but Green River is on track to break a new ceiling, positioning community colleges across Seattle-Tacoma as an unlikely, but compelling, solution for helping regional tech diversify its workforce.

Reach Andy Orr, program manager at Green River College, at greenriver.edu/software.

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