When Kim Wilkens studied math and computer science in college in the ’80s, she knew women were underrepresented.
She still remembers a flippant comment from a math professor she went to for help with an assignment. “It was just an offhand comment, really,” Wilkens said. “Something about, ‘Oh yeah, women struggle with this all the time.’”
Still, after graduating with a degree in computer science and working in a variety of software development roles at IBM for over a decade, Wilkens assumed things were getting better. Until she attended a conference in 2010, where she learned a fact that shocked her: In the late ’80s, women made up 37 percent of computer science graduates. In 2010, that percentage had dropped to 18.
“I became really fired up at that point, because I knew where technology was going, how much influence it has on every aspect of our lives,” she said. “If girls and women are not part of that, that is a huge issue.”
Now, Wilkens is a computer scientist, a teacher, a nonprofit founder, and a community organizer. She is also a student again – on her way to earning her doctorate from the UVA School of Education and Human Development. Driving all her pursuits is one goal: to figure out, at a grassroots level, how to bring more girls and women into computer science.
Wilkens fell in love with computer science in college. After taking one elective, she was drawn to the creativity and problem-solving she found in the growing field.
Becoming a teacher was never the plan, until she stumbled into a teaching position after moving to Charlottesville with her family in 2001. She became passionate about empowering K-8 students to create technology. The 2010 conference that opened her eyes to the need to address diversity issues in technology further ignited her passion for education. She earned her master’s degree in education and worked as a teacher for years, eventually coaching other teachers and building a K-8 computer science program from the ground up.
In 2012, she started Tech-Girls with programming that has grown from reaching dozens to hundreds of local K-12 girls each year. She joined forces with other local women in tech in 2014 to co-found the 501c3 nonprofit Charlottesville Women in Tech. She also chaired the annual Charlottesville Business Innovation Council Tech Tour which provided opportunities for hundreds of middle and high school students to get a behind-the-scenes look at local technology companies. In 2017, she started the CS Institute, which provided professional learning opportunities for K-12 teachers. She's also a founding member of the Charlottesville Computer Science Community, a research-practice partnership that aims to improve computer science education for elementary school students.
But her sights were set on even bigger goals. So Wilkens enrolled in the Ed.D. in Curriculum & Instruction program at UVA. “I'm looking for opportunities to take the lessons that are part of [the CS Institute] and create opportunities for other schools and districts,” she said. “I like to think that we're building something here at the grassroots level that can then be a model for what others can do.”
Returning to school was, in her words, “a bit terrifying.” But working closely with her advisor, Jennie Chiu, Wilkens said she has enjoyed diving into research on computer science pedagogy and equitable teaching strategies. “I feel like we're doing a lot of groundbreaking research that's actually going to make an impact,” she said. “And that is super exciting.”
At the same time, she appreciates how the Ed.D. program focuses on real-world problems.
“Every class I've taken, all the big projects that I've done, have never been in a vacuum,” she said. “Everything I do I can directly relate to one of these areas that I'm passionate about and take it to the next level.”
For a recent independent study project, Wilkens created a podcast designed to help teachers understand and implement the latest computer science education research in their classrooms. She enjoyed the project so much that she has continued producing the podcast long after the independent study ended.
Eventually, Wilkens sees herself in a kind of consultant role, widening her reach even more by helping others make computer science equitable and accessible in their communities.
“Computer science is the foundation of all the technology innovations happening in the world,” she said. “We need more folks at the table.”