To cap off Computer Science Education Week, Terysa Ridgeway, a Technical Program Manager at Google, is actively involved in STEM education programs to empower youth in her local community in hopes of increasing their interest in the industry.
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She also published "Think Like A Computer," her first book in the "Terysa Solves It!" series designed to stimulate girls' curiosity to consider venturing into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Ridgeway created her book series around the adventures she experienced as an inquisitive eight-year-old girl who enjoyed solving technical problems with her computer. In the first installment, the main character, Terysa, must think more like a computer than a human. The book also comes with a color book and an interactive digital e-book to help girls go even further in STEM.
Ridgeway's interest in pursuing a career in technology as a software engineer began when computers were not mainstays in most American homes. As a child of two teachers, her parents encouraged her imagination and curiosity. Her mother brought a computer home one day over the summer break. She immediately gravitated towards the data processor, intrigued by its keyboard and how the letters would appear on the screen. Years later, when platforms like Blackplanet and Myspace emerged, Ridgeway unknowingly gained an additional skill set by learning how to code in HTML by developing her profile to resemble her personality with accents of dripping diamonds, she retells with a chuckle.
She grew up in Sunset, Louisiana, a small rural town that contains 2500 people where people would go off to college, return home and become teachers. "I did very well in math and science, so I was going to school to become a math teacher, and as part of the math curriculum, I had to take a computer science course. I connected the dots; all this HTML stuff I was doing on Myspace is like someone's career. I changed my major, and I would say the rest is history," Ridgeway says, recollecting the genesis of her chosen career path.
As a remote employee of Google, she is grateful to work for a multinational technology company. Still, she remains in touch with community members from her hometown, "It all really family. I study a little bit of genealogy and can trace back seven generations in a single square mile." The strong bond she feels for her neighborhood served as the basis for children to dream big beyond what's available in a square mile radius, "But it's always good to go out into the world, come back, and teach your own."
As a Black woman working in tech, she encountered many obstacles at the beginning of her career. She worked at a company that was a Department of Defense contractor, where it was 90% White males ages ranging from fifty to seventy years old. Ridgeway had to undergo a rigorous interview process to get hired. However, she was unaware of the racial disparity in the industry until the age of thirty because that was all she knew until that point in her life.
During her employment, "I knew I was different. I was fresh out of college, I'm 19 years old [and I'm wondering] are they treating me differently because I'm young, is it because I'm Black, is it because I'm a woman. But it was at some point where it's like, I could spin my wheels and figure out why I am being treated differently, or I could show them how great I am, and I preferred to take that road. But I know that's not the common path for everyone, and that's why now I'm trying to be more thoughtful about things I do and how I present myself."
To overcome systemic issues and improve the career pathway for the next generation, she advises that everyone must become cognizant of the intrinsic behaviors and ideas that cause the exclusion of Black people, especially Black women from entering the technology workforce.
"I went to Southern University, an HBCU, so there were many people in computer science with me. But thinking back to how many people are actually in the field now, it's a very small number. I feel that we overlook what causes that drop-off, and I think it's more about companies not realizing the potential in this great group of people with this skill set that could diversify an industry," she reasons. "I would prefer, with my book, to identify those kids that are super, naturally inquisitive and show them that all their problem solving you enjoy doing, and all those millions of 'why' questions you have, [can] turn into a phenomenal career. But then that drop off of 'I'm majoring in this, but then nobody wants to hire me.'"
Some companies, such as Google, are actively bridging the gap by establishing programs and initiatives at HBCUs, which is a prudent move. Melonie Parker, Google's Chief Diversity Officer, in a post that 25% of African American students who graduate with STEM degrees earn them from HBCUs.
"I feel for the longest; it's always been on the HBCUs to develop this phenomenal talent. But having companies now do that outreach, it's like we're meeting in the middle. I see a lot of that, and then I see a lot of foundations and nonprofit organizations doing their part, too," Ridgeway says. "I feel more hopeful with the companies doing the outreach on their own and having specific teams for HBCU outreach because it was something that I didn't have at the time upon graduating in my local area. [I] had nowhere to get a job, so you have to go out [to find gainful employment.] I see even the state and government doing their part." She names PwC, formerly PriceWaterhouseCoopers, as establishing an effective initiative targeting students of HBCUs and how they are diversifying their C-suite, which is the executive-level management positions in an organization or corporation and where the true power lies.
"Even the company that I came from called Raytheon Missiles and Defense, it's a very large Department of Defense contractor, and they've always done their part," she adds—thinking back on how the company offered to pay her to return to her college and recruit potential new employees.
Thankfully steps are being made on the educational front and the recruitment from companies. Yet, Ridgeway accepts the responsibility of "who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." She diligently assists and engages in educational and mentorship programs focused on STEM to empower underserved youth.
Initially, her first endeavor into mentoring started with the daughter of one of her friends, who showed interest in learning more about computers. Ridgeway realized she wanted to make a more significant impact to inspire young students in computer science. Google partnered with the federal government in the Congressional App Challenge, and she had the chance to meet a group of kids from sixth to eighth grade with hopes of inspiring them. However, the experience motivated her to offer this opportunity to multiple children in various locations.
"Even though [I'm] from a small area, [where many] people could become completely stagnant. A lot of areas are worse off than when I was a kid, and I feel that it's like a downward spiral for these kids not to have anything to do other than sports," she says, her voice filled with concern.
The children she mentored through her program are graduating high school this year. "Seeing them going into the sciences, some may not be following the computer science path, but I think that's still great because I feel that computer science is a foundational skill that can help you in any industry. I feel so hopeful about the future and, even just working in a very technical job where it's using a certain side of your brain that's super analytical, and being able to connect it to the creative side, it's this balance that's phenomenal for me," she remarks.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed; she received recognition professionally from Governor John Bel Edwards, Senator Clay Higgins, and Mayor-President Joel Robideaux for the work she's done to introduce STEM to youth from underprivileged backgrounds. She targets five- to eight-year-olds because she believes they are a vital age group. After all, they are naturally inquisitive and active problem solvers, which will improve the statistical representation data if they are guided toward STEM careers.
Ridgeway is also mainly focused on eight to 12-year-old girls; she notices a significant decline in their interest in math and science. "It may be peer pressure or a lack of confidence and puberty. I feel that catching them early, building that confidence, and having them understand their power to continue into adolescence is a perfect age; there's nothing anyone can say or do to you that will make you feel incompetent. That's one thing I felt I didn't necessarily have because I've worked on it for so long, but I feel that's where the gap is," she adds.
The New York Times reported that the pandemic caused dismal effects on the performance of nine-year-olds in math and reading, whose scores dropped to levels from two decades ago, as national test results show. Ridgeway suggests that parents foster excellent working relationships with teachers and educators who interact with their children to maintain their high scholastic aptitude.
"I think you should find out things that they enjoy. The one thing my parents did that I can look back and say was great parenting and is something I try to implement with my kids, as well as, is to find out exactly what they like. Then, implement things that suit them well once they reach the real world. So, for example, my parents didn't know much about computers growing up, but they knew that by the time I was in my twenties, thirties, and forties, that would be the way to go. So it's introducing them to it, not necessarily forcing them into whatever career you feel is best for them. Find out their strengths, and then let them develop them independently," she says.
The software she recommends using to enhance computer science education in children is a free tool offered by Google called CS First, developed by MIT, an online platform where kids can learn coding.
"It provides information on how to code and teaches you the basics and the foundation, and I'm also working on a similar coding platform with Google and MIT. In addition to that, for sciences, just taking advantage of [free offerings in the] community like with your library system. They provide you with access to all the different museums like the Science and History Museum, where you can go and ask those questions and learn great information related to the sciences," Ridgeway offers.
The access to free information served as a partial foundation for developing the story for her book. One of the main reasons she decided to self-publish "Think Like A Computer" was to address the burning questions of her four children, who wondered what life was like in the 1900s—amused by the generational gap between herself and her brood, she set off to tell a story of a time when most American households did not own a computer, mobile phones, or electronics in the second half of the century. Her kids and their friends inquired how she felt when she first received a desktop computer and crafted a fictional children's tale around that initial experience. The storyline follows the early beginnings of coding because she wanted to have relatable topics for kids and tie them to computer science. The pandemic gave her solitude and time to hone her skill of storytelling. She said she approached the entire process of writing, publishing, and marketing the book like an engineer.
Ridgeway tapped her sister, who is phenomenal in English, to conduct pre-editing before she reached out to an editor to finalize the text. For the illustration, she had a specific vision of the colors she wanted to use because she wanted to evoke feelings of euphoria and found an illustrator to bring her ideas to life. Armed with her perseverance, "Think Like A Computer" is now available in several stores and she hosts reading sessions for children.
As a Black woman, she notices that little Black girls are drawn to her, and her heart flutters when she sees them have an 'aha moment' at age five or six, knowing they can have careers in computer science. Readers of her first book can also anticipate receiving two or more books around the topic of STEM that will be available sometime next year. She also plans for future installments to pay homage to Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the three brilliant Black women mathematicians who worked at NASA and contributed to launching a man into space.
"The positive thing I've gotten out of [the movie Hidden Figures] was how much it reached people. Now a lot more kids are interested in computer science because their parents saw [the film], says Ridgeway, who would like to see more representation in movies and television of Black people working in STEM. While the world continues to catch up to Black innovation, Ridgeway uses her humanitarian efforts and STEM contributions to expand locally and globally. She is the recipient of keys to three Louisiana cities: Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Opelousas, Louisiana; Sunset, Louisiana. Her hometown, Sunset, proclaimed March 24th as the official day to honor her accomplishments and civic contributions annually. Ridgeway also carries duties as a United States Goodwill Ambassador – appointed by President Yahya Jammeh, the President of the Republic of The Gambia.
She hopes to bring her mentorship program to the region and already has some of her books in the country's library. "When I received the Goodwill Ambassadorship, I was in my early twenties, and I felt that that was such a pivotal moment to visit Africa for the first time," she says, with a smile. "Seeing the joy that the people have there, it truly felt like home, and whatever I can do in any aspect, I one-hundred percent will do it." With her work in the United States and Africa, Ridgway's ever-present goal is to show children that STEM careers are achievable. She wants her message to encourage them to perfect the act of failing and fixing problems so they can "improve and do it better next time."
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