From Liberal Arts to Engineering: A woman’s journey through code

photo by Robert Costain

This week’s blog post comes from Nadia Sheikh, a software engineering student at Concordia University and a teacher with Kids Code Jeunesse, an organization that teaches and promotes coding for kids. LEARN and Kids Code Jeunesse will be offering a new session of Saturday coding classes beginning October 15.

I came to the field of software engineering later in life than most of fellow students. Prior to enrolling in a software engineering program at Concordia, I had studied law, philosophy and neuroscience. Despite the plethora of men in my family, including my father, who are engineers, the field was one I had never considered an option for myself. It seemed an impossibility. After all, engineers were Math people and I was a middling Math student at best. I was a reader and the highest grades I received were in History and English, so clearly I was an Arts person. At the ripe age of eight, I decided that my future lay in the humanities. It took a continental move, six petrifying months with rats in a lab, and an offhand suggestion for me to even consider that I could be a software engineer.

My experience, it appears, is not an uncommon one. In 2010, a report published by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada noted that although the number of women outnumber the number of males enrolled in an undergraduate degree by 40%, women make up only 37% of students enrolled in a natural science and engineering degree. Under representation is even more prevalent when only engineering and computer science are considered, with females making up only 16.9% of students enrolled in engineering or computer science bachelors in Canada for the 2008 – 2009 academic year. The literature review conducted by NSERC identifies a range of reasons many of which seem to characterize my experience including: stereotypes of femininity and masculinity, girls holding themselves to higher standards than boys, girls lacking confidence in their mathematical ability when compared to boys and a lack of female role models in natural science and technology fields.

Although I entered my studies at Concordia with trepidation and have been challenged academically, I have found many of my prior perceptions, those that kept me out of the field of software engineering and quaking with fear amongst my lab rats, to be unfounded. Software engineering, I have found is not just for mathematicians but for creators and dreamers, and those like me, with a penchant for abstraction. Although mathematical proficiency is required, this proficiency is not simply endowed but can be acquired with deliberate practice, in my case motivated by a desire to create.  I am not as I feared, the sole woman, struggling, at the bottom of my class. Although a minority, I am surrounded by women classmates and professors, all of whom vary academically, in personality, and in how they choose to express their femininity.logokcj_1ligne_rgbKey to these realizations has been exposure to coding and the world of code. It is this exposure that I seek to give kids as I teach them to code through the classes given by Kids Code Jeunesse and LEARN. In creating projects using Scratch or CSS and HTML or Python, my students are given an opportunity to gain confidence as producers of media, and not merely consumers of it. They engage in computational thinking divorced from mathematics, utilizing skills such as abstraction, decomposition and pattern recognition to transform the seed of an idea in their very human minds into one that can be realized by a computer. They are given a safe environment to fail and then reiterate as snippets of code fail to perform as expected. They may be challenged, in looking at their instructors and their fellow students to see who is a software engineer or computer scientist and who can code.

The exposure gleaned in my classes is not intended to convert but to empower kids to make informed choices as they look to their futures. It is an attempt to reveal to them a potential, one that they may or may not choose to nurture, and to dispel false barriers. No child at the naïve age of eight should be placing themselves in the silo of being an Arts person or a Math person.

If you want to read more about how to nurture girls’ interest in science, check out these posts:

Rapping Across the Curriculum

The following is a guest post by Dan Parker. 
Dan Parker holds an M.A. in Education and a B. Ed. in High School History and French Second Language. He taught in Quebec for three years and then decided to quit his day job to follow the call of combining music, education and activism in classrooms and communities around the province. He is part of the Culture in the Schools network and offers workshops in rap and spoken-word across disciplines and ages.

Dan Parker performing for the Rap Battles for Social Justice which he founded

The class is filled with suspense and excitement. An instrumental hip hop beat plays through a small but loud amplifier and a laptop. Two mics are ready to be held. The desks are covered with sheets scribbled with rap lyrics, created in only 20-30 minutes by the students themselves. The beat turns up for the frenzied last minute rehearsals before presenting. The teacher gets ready to observe and evaluate in an authentically riveting learning situation.

No matter the subject or age level, this is the climax of the Rapping Across the Curriculum workshop.

In History class, the highest academic achiever grabs the mic and drops the knowledge with a vivid verse explaining the Quiet Revolution so well that some students will study her text for the upcoming test!  In English class, the class comedians take on the roles of Iago and Othello for a hilarious Shakespearean rap battle. In Ethics and Religion, the shy teenager hesitates but then makes jaws drop once he shares his frustrations about discrimination via rhythmic poetry.  In elementary school, a chorus of pre-teens repeat syncopated sentences about why calculating area and perimeter is useful. And in a grade 3 class, children jump up and down, making bee sounds, as they rhyme about springtime.

Inspired to accomplish feats over beats

Today, hip hop music is an informal but influential educational resource. Many teens listen attentively to the verses of their favourite rap artists, and some even memorize and recite their words like mantras! Why not give your students the opportunity to bring this dimension of their personal way of learning to class? Plus many studies have shown that music, in general, speeds up the learning development of speech and reading skills, trains children to pay more attention for longer periods, and enhances their sense of empathy for others!

The enthusiasm that rap music solicits is undeniable. Of course, not all students are rap fans. Some even hate mainstream rap music. But the excitement of expressing oneself in a rhythmic game is so contagious that it gets the haters/naysayers applauding and, quite often, even performing in the long tradition of spoken-word poetry that transcends the rap music genre. Younger children may not have even heard one single rap song before the workshop, but they are familiar with nursery rhymes which makes this urban genre easily accessible to them.

Students learning about hip hop beats in a primary school music class

What does it look like in the classroom?

Getting children and teenagers excited about learning is what I do. I enjoy creating creative learning and evaluation situations as well as collaborating with other educators. Since 2014 I’ve given over 200 Rapping Across the Curriculum workshops in over 40 schools all over Quebec.  The course content and the social contexts have been very diverse.

When I walk into a class, I may not win the students’ respect at first. Some of the teens even think, “who is this lanky Brazilian-Canadian who wears no bling (jewelery), swag (stylish clothes), or anything resembling what famous rappers look like? Is this a joke?”. To convince them, I take them for a ride.

First, I briefly break down the history of rap lyricism which reveals the many phases and styles of this international art form rooted in African-American and Latino-American culture. Then, we enter the topic that the teacher has selected, such as the Quiet Revolution in History. The students suggest key words and short sentences from the mind map or word banks that they have already prepared in a previous class before my arrival. I cover the black/white/smart board with their contributions.

Finally, the magic happens: I turn up the beat and grab a mic. The students’ suggestions on the board become my playground. This is pure improv. I jump from one word to another, rhyming, making jokes, explaining key concepts, asking questions, getting the group to cheer and repeat, then finishing by hitting them hard with a punchline near the end of the 4 minute freestyle.

Applause. Victory. I epic-win their attention. How? Recognized skill instills respect. Now they’re ready to listen. After a quick rhythm and street poetry lesson, they’re ready for action.

High school student on the mic with Dan watching

From past projects to future echoes

In the heart of Montreal, I galvanized Contemporary World students to rhyme about tensions and conflict related to racism in North America. In a Montreal suburb, teens in a Work Oriented Training Path program spat bars with me about what it means to be vulnerable. In a primary school in Mascouche, music class became rap class where children learned how to record a verse and design a basic hip hop beat. North of the 49th parallel, I gave lyric-writing tips to Cree teens who rapped about their hunting adventures with their families.

Sounds like fun? Then let’s get the ball rolling. Time is ticking.

Making it happen – Culture in the Schoolsculture_ecole_en

Dear teacher, here’s how you can make all this go down in your classroom.

First you contact me at You’ll tell me about the topic you’d like your students to rap about, and then I’ll design a custom-made workshop that covers your course curriculum.  We’ll fill out the Culture in the Schools forms together, and then apply for funding from your school board.  [Note:  many other artists are also available via their Répertoire de ressources culture-education.]

Since the Ministry of Education pays for 75 % of the fees, your board and your principal will probably be happy to approve the request and have the school only pay only 25%. Plus, your school administration would surely enjoy the idea of livening up course content, raising all-round student learning engagement, and sharing photos and videos of their students rapping online for the school community and the parents of prospective schoolchildren.  

We’ll need to make sure to meet the Culture in the Schools deadline in October or November, depending on your school board. Some schools have teacher committees that select the visiting artists, so you could propose that they choose the Rapping Across the Curriculum workshops as one of the school’s requests. It’s a good idea to team up with other teachers so that several classes can experience what it’s like to rhyme on the mic to the beat. Schools can have artists visit for several days. If you’re too busy to jump through these bureaucratic hoops alone, maybe one of your colleagues will be motivated to do the paperwork for their classes as well as yours.

And if you want to really make sure students across Quebec get to experience this unique learning style, share this blog post with the teachers, educational consultants and principals in your networks.

Now I pass the mic to you. Looking forward to hearing from you and, eventually, your students.