06 Apr How are STEM girls made? Ask Chinma Uche.
Back in sixth grade, I had an amazing teacher who gave me the confidence to write. This was expected in 1972, when our early education didn’t include much talk of women in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) professions. It took years before persistence and sheer need got math to click in my left side brain.
Dr. Chinma Uche’s journey to math and computer science runs in stark contrast to my struggle, and to what many girls and young women still experience.
A math and computer science teacher at the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC)’s Greater Hartford Academy of Mathematics and Science (GHAMAS) and the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, Dr. Uche inspires girls and boys to use both their logical-left and creative-right brains to develop software applications that address needs they identify and that align with their personal interests.
A Connecticut Teacher of the Year semi-finalist, 2015 CREC Teacher of the Year and president of the Connecticut Chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association, Chinma is making a huge impact on computer science instruction across the state and nation.
How did this dynamic woman get her inspiration and drive?
The Early Years
Chinma grew up in rural Nigeria, an environment devoid of TV, radio and other connective technologies but rich in her parents’ teaching talent. Her father used a blackboard in the family’s home to refine his classroom skills, expand his children’s knowledge and get them comfortable with numbers. “By the time I reached high school, math was not only easy for me, it was also fun,” Chinma relates.
In Nigeria, subject-specific, skill-focused exams are the only doorway to university admission. The family was granted three forms: one for Chinma’s brother, one for her sister and one for her. With her father’s encouragement, Chinma easily passed the math exam.
Her family’s classes paid off: Chinma received her bachelors’ and masters’ degree in math from the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. She met and married Uche Uche, with whom she shares a passion for education. The couple immigrated to the United Kingdom, where Uche obtained his PhD from the Center for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Scotland and Chinma obtained her PhD in Biomathematics from Imperial College, London.
Opening doors in Hartford, Connecticut
“Always the global student, my husband saw the U.S. as the land of opportunity,” said Chinma, who taught high school math in London after obtaining her Ph.D., and obtained her certificate in C++ programming. Dr. Uche Uche started as a research fellow at the Department of Vascular Biology at UCONN Health Center. In 2002, he accepted a teaching job at Bulkeley High School in Hartford, Conn. while looking for job opportunities for his wife.
Chinma’s search for a teaching position in the U.S. did not last long. “My son was attending summer school in Hartford’s Learning Corridor when I first visited the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science in 2002. I met Professor Jeff Osborn, who was then the director of the school. I was impressed by his commitment to the school’s students. He saw my potential and offered me a job within the week! Surprisingly he asked me to teach advanced placement (AP) computer science, a programming course in Java.”
Computer Science for All
As the Academy transitioned from a half-day to a full day program, students’ appreciation for computer science grew and more students wanted to take computer science; however it was only offered as an elective at the AP level. Unfortunately, some of the students did not have the background to engage with computer science at the AP level.
Chinma felt a huge sense of urgency to jump-start and grow programs for students from kindergarten to 9th grade. She knew that to get more kids into computer science they must be introduced to it at earlier ages. She also knew that engaging curricula had to be developed at AP and non-AP levels. She wanted training to be made available to help teachers become comfortable in teaching computer science concepts. She wanted to ensure a consistent level of instruction, regardless of the school’s location or resources.
With the support of the Connecticut Chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association, Chinma has worked to expand access to computer science education locally and nationally. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Chinma worked with Trinity College Computer Science Professor Ralph Morelli to develop a flavor of the AP Computer Science Principles course (Mobile CSP) and to train more than 40 Connecticut high school teachers to bring the course to their students. With funding from Code.org, Chinma and Heather Sutkowski of CREC Montessori Magnet School set up the program to train 300 K-5th grade teachers to bring computer science to their students at no cost to their schools. Chinma feels privileged to be supported by phenomenal groups of people and organizations, including the Computer Science Teachers Association.
Girl Coders Rock!
Chinma’s passion and commitment extends to helping her female students channel their personal interests into coding applications. She encourages them to participate in the worldwide Technovation Challenge, which requires girls to write apps that solve problems in their communities. She adapted Connecticut College’s Women In Science Program to create a high school-level Women in STEM-C event at GHAMAS and the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering. The annual event requires girls to work in teams to participate in activities of their choice in the areas of physics, engineering, neuroscience and computer science.
Dr. Chinma Uche’s passion and dedication are paying off. “We know that computer science jobs pay 1.5 times that of other jobs. Many of my female students at the Academy are going on to computer science programs at prestigious colleges and universities, and a few college graduates have received excellent offers from top companies,” she says proudly.
One GHAMAS alumna, a senior at Tufts, was offered a programming job at FitBit. Sara Banach, another Chinma protégé and a senior at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering developed for her Girl Scout Gold Award using Pencilcode, a course to teach her fellow students computer science using teenagers’ unique jargon.
Chinma is especially proud of her daughter, Chinedum, a Dartmouth college sophomore majoring in computer science and government. While at GHAMAS, Chinedum and her female programming team developed ExerciseU, an application designed to help college women combat the dreaded “Freshman 15” weight gain by customizing a personalized fitness program and reminders. She is also proud of her first daughter, Chiemerie, who is working for a reputable company after completing her masters in computer science. Chinma and Uche are also blessed with two boys, Chinaza (a New York University graduate) and Chibuikem (a UCONN senior).
Chinma’s ‘Secret Sauce’
What makes Chinma such an effective teacher? “Dr. Uche never gives you the answer to a problem. She always asked us what we thought, and told us to dig a little deeper. She encouraged us to work together as a group to consider the possibilities and come up with our own answers. She helped us understand the power of collaboration,” said former Advanced Placement student Lauren Jefferson, an MIT graduate who is active as a VISTA volunteer mentoring student teams and marketing the NE FIRST Robotics program.
“Computer science is a tool, a door-opener for many other fields,” Dr. Uche explains. “Our world is changing fast, and our kids must be taught these skills now. I tell my students that regardless where you take it, understanding the logic behind creating programs and apps will help you to have a positive impact on something you are passionate about. Your skills can help move our society forward. And by working with others, you can test, modify and bring your idea to reality.”