From The Philadelphia Computing Section to ENIAC

In my best Martina McBride vocal, “This one’s for the girls”…but I think everyone will find this as interesting as I did.

There is so much focus in education today on technology – its role in the classroom and moreover in the broader education experience for students of all ages.  Twitter is teeming daily with educators posting on the latest technology tool they are implementing or about the latest web resource they’ve discovered for their students.

The reality is that the way schools educate students today is vastly different than the methodology of even 20 years ago.  Computers are no fad, they are not disappearing…quite the contrary, they are multiplying at an exponential rate.  While pioneering and innovative schools across the country, like Fort Worth Academy, led the way through the creation of 1:1 computer initiatives some 7 to 10 years ago, we never envisioned the environment we have today which, as opposed to 1:1, is more like 2:1 or 3:1.  Students today come to class with their school issued laptop and a smartphone and often a tablet as well!

Understanding how to use these devices is clearly of critical importance.  However, there is another aspect of technology in schools that has largely been ignored.  Until quite recently, there was virtually no focus on computer programming, or coding as it is more commonly referred to today, even in the most tech savvy schools.

I have a saying, a personal motto of sorts, if you will, that I often share with, well with anyone who will listen.  It is this…”Just because you know how to work a computer doesn’t mean you know how a computer works.”  The genesis of this saying goes way back in my career, doing tech support work on the side for family members due to my interest in computers from an early age.  I often encountered one family member (who shall remain nameless) who referred to the use of a particular piece of software on her computer as “programming”.  She was convinced she knew about computer programming because she could use various software applications on her computer to get work done.  I spent years attempting to teach her the difference between running a program and writing a program.  To this day, I’m not sure she ever got it.  She has since retired and I no longer feel compelled to point out the difference, I just continue to support her software usage, like a good son-in-law…oops!

Today’s prolific omnipresent impact of technology and the whole, “there’s an app” for that mentality has led to an even more broad chasm between the concept of using a computer versus programming a computer.  In-fact, I submit that there are many people, adults and students alike, who have no idea that “app” is short for “application” and that an “application” is really a “computer program” and further, without computer programs, none of the devices they carry around every day would do anything.  As a society, we marvel at the latest release of every piece of computing hardware (call it what you will, phone, tablet, watch, GPS, camera…at its core, it’s computing hardware), all-the-while seemingly ignoring the impact of the software development that has and must occur in tandem to allow the hardware to reach its fullest potential.

Thankfully there are efforts underway to change the prevailing computing winds.  Educational initiatives like www.code.org are making great strides in introducing the younger generation to computer programing by putting celebrity faces out front touting the importance of coding and then providing a vast array of resources to teach basic concepts and hopefully sparking an interest.  There are also a few highly respected educators like Gary Stager, www.stager.org @garystager, attempting to redirect the tidal flow of technology in the schools.  To quote Dr Stager from a recent article of his, “Outside the Skinner Box – Can Education Technology Make a Course Correction?” he says:

Wordles, note taking, looking stuff up, word-processing essays, and making PowerPoint presentations on topics students don’t care about for audiences they’ll never encounter represent the state-of-the-art in far too many classrooms. We can do better.

Indeed we can.

But how you ask?

By doing what good educators everywhere do on a daily basis…creating a learning environment that fuels student interest and ignites engagement.  To quote William Butler Yeats:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and now STEAM (where the A represents Arts) has become a major educational initiative in the last few years as well.  Computer Science (or programming or coding) encompasses every facet of STEM, enhances STEM and, dare I say it, is the foundation for advancement of STEM concepts by virtue of doing what computers do best, handling the mundane, rote procedures allowing the human to focus upon higher order cognition and problem solving!

Here is where Martina begins to sing the chorus…

While STEM programs do often spur student engagement, they do often tend to miss the mark when it comes to igniting that interest and engagement in young women.  I too have seen a bit of a waning of interest in the sciences among young ladies here at The Academy over the years.  So when I come across something I think might help engage, I like to share!

Enter The Philadelphia Computing Section.  What is that you may ask.  I did.  And then I tested the waters with the question, “Who here has heard of ‘The Philadelphia Computing Section’?” asked of our Technology Committee made up of three female members (an 8th grade English teacher, an Associate Head of School/5th grade Math teacher and a Library Science/Information Technology Specialist) and two male members (me and my Middle School IT Specialist).  No one had heard of this entity so I knew I was on to something!  And I think this would go a long way in the efforts to keep young women interested in the sciences and computing.

If you are also one who has not heard of The Philadelphia Computing Section, I can almost guarantee the image you have in your head right now could not be more wrong.  You see, when The Philadelphia Computing Section was created, there was no electronic computing hardware in existence.  In 1942, “computers” were in-fact, human.  The Philadelphia Computing Section was an elite group of women mathematicians who were quietly recruited from universities and even some high schools by the United States government for a top secret program involving complex math equations and the creation of artillery trajectory tables for use by our troops engaged in World War II battles in Europe.

How incredibly cool is that?  The accuracy of the Allied bombing can be directly attributed to women with a major interest AND a major talent in math…MATH!!!

And if that weren’t enough to make the point that women have a place in STEM related fields, the story doesn’t end there.  As cool as that is, let me give you the Paul Harvey…(that would be “The Rest of the Story” for those of you young folks who don’t know who Paul Harvey was–Google it).

Even though you likely had not heard of The Philadelphia Computing Section, I’ll venture you have heard of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the world’s first REAL computer.  It was a product of  University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering.  And just like computers today, ENIAC required programs, and therefore programmers, to make it work.

Do you know what ENIAC’s initial computing job was?

Artillery Trajectory Tables.  Sound familiar?

So who do you think the machine’s designers tapped to do the programming?  Yep!  Six women from The Philadelphia Computing Section were selected to program ENIAC because of their interest and their mathematical skill!  Women played a HUGE role in the birth and advancement of the field of computer science!  While you’re Googling Paul Harvey, Google US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, another female pioneer of computer science and often credited with coining the programming term “bug” (it’s a great story!)

So in summary, GIRL POWER!!  I realize this is a bit askew coming from a guy but it is true.  In my view, society at-large often underestimates the power of a young woman’s brain.  Why?  It has the same parts as a young man’s brain…the same wiring…the same rapid-fire synapses occurring.  The bottom line here is that a girl can be a girl and be intelligent, regardless of what perceived societal norms otherwise dictate.  To parents, educators and mentors, do not bow to these norms but rather expect intellectual greatness from the young women in your lives and prepare to be amazed!

To learn more about the amazing women of The Philadelphia Computing Section and their impact on society as we know it today, check out LeAnn Erickson’s website www.topsecretrosies.com…she is also working on educational resources to help spread the word and keep young women interested in STEM related fields of study.

Some additional resources to learn more:

https://www.facebook.com/topsecretrosies

http://www.academia.edu/10105264/The_Secret_Women_of_the_Philadelphia_Computing_Section

http://www.siam.org/news/news.php?id=1886

http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/innovation/02/08/women.rosies.math/

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/computinghistory/eniac.html

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