Xavier Magazine

Girl Geeks: Computing Education

A funny thing happened to Jill Pala on her way to becoming a high school math teacher. She found out she was a computer geek. And she liked it. A lot. Better than math.

“I had no idea what it was before I took it, but the logic was so interesting.”

Naturally, she wanted to ditch the math and study computer science. Trouble was, the classes at Xavier were guy-heavy—which was only sort of a problem—but mostly she was at a huge disadvantage because her all-girls high school in Chattanooga, Tenn., never offered computer science. 

So she took extra classes at Xavier to catch up with the boys and joined a small group of like-minded girls majoring in computer science as encouragement. And it worked. She graduated in 2001 and landed a job right away in private industry.

Not giving up on her original desire to teach, though, Pala is now in the classroom at that same all-girls high school she attended, only teaching computer science instead. And doing quite well. Of the 71 girls in Tennessee who took the AP computer science test in 2013, 30 were from her class.

“It’s sad that one school can make such a difference. I wish more schools taught computer science
so that one school could not skew the data so much,” she says. “It’s great that our program has grown so much, but it shouldn’t be such an anomaly.”

Learn more about girls and the computer gap.

It wasn’t always the case, though. After a slow start, she began recruiting girls in honors classes and held computer contests and demonstrations to raise the image of girl geeks. Her numbers jumped. Suddenly computers were cool.

The school eventually made computer science its own department, which Pala now chairs, and now offers a range of courses. Pala says computer science should be required for graduation to increase the diversity of students going into the field, where jobs are plentiful and pay is good.

“In some sense, every girl that goes into computing has to be a little bit of a pioneer because today, only 17-18 percent of computer science degrees awarded are to females,” she says. “The computing field recognizes diversity is important because a diverse set of people finds a diverse set of solutions.”