BLACKSBURG — Bethany Hsiao’s attitude toward science and technology was apparent when she learned about a statewide STEM essay contest earlier this year.

“I decided to give it a shot,” Hsiao, a Blacksburg High School senior, said. “If I don’t try, I can’t get it.”

By late April, Hsiao, 18, learned that she was one of five statewide winners in the Virginia Council on Women’s eighth annual STEM essay contest.

Leaning on Hsiao’s own experience, her essay eloquently tackled the existing gap between the number of men and women working in STEM fields — STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

“While the job market in the STEM field, especially in computer science, is rapidly expanding, statistics of women in those careers remain dismal,” according to an excerpt.

The essay cites figures from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which reports that women hold just 18% of undergraduate degrees in computer and information sciences.

“In fact, this gender incongruity even pervades into the high school educational system,” according to another excerpt. “In February 2018, the Atlantic reported that of all students taking the AP computer science exam, only 27% were female.”

Hsiao further cites the NCWIT, which she wrote “posits that our culture leads to lower confidence levels for girls and more ‘informal computing opportunities’ for boys, which further contributes to this predicament.”

Hsiao wrote that she unknowingly fell into the “trap” that experts have referred to in regard to women in STEM.

“From elementary to high school, I consistently cited math as my favorite and strongest subject. My strength in math and childhood hobby of playing computer games instigated my curiosity in coding,” she wrote. “However, I did not actively pursue learning computer programming until my teenage years due to my fear of failure.”

Hsiao, however, decided to take the plunge as she got older.

She said her father, a Virginia Tech computer engineering professor, introduced her to coding in the eighth grade.

That period involved Hsiao taking three JavaScript courses on Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides a variety of free online courses to students around the world.

“With a combination of my personal interest and grit and his [her father’s] support, simple shapes progressed into interactive programs with multiple levels and nonplayer characters,” reads another excerpt in Hsiao’s essay.

Hsiao said one barrier she’s seen to women entering STEM fields is the simple perception that men are expected to go into that sector.

“When they see such a male-dominated field, that’s a turnoff,” she said.

Hsiao was rewarded with a $5,000 scholarship for her essay. She intends to apply that money to her enrollment this fall at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania.

Hsiao plans to study computer science and is considering later pursuing a doctorate. She said she’s interested in teaching computer science in college.

“I think I’ve always wanted to do that,” she said.

But Hsiao said she believes her options are open.

“In the back of my mind, I’ve always considered Wall Street, too,” she said.

In addition to knowing how to code, Hsiao already has some project experience.

Last summer, she took part in a professor-led initiative at Tech during which she used a program to gather and sift data from the 2014 Virginia elections. The data included local news articles and the objective was to see how people used social media to discuss elections.

Hsiao described the experience at Tech as an amazing learning opportunity.

When it comes to explaining what draws her so much to programming, Hsiao almost compares the activity to a passion for art. She said coding basically involves taking numbers and crunching them together “until you finally have this beautiful thing that works.”

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Yann Ranaivo covers local government and politics in the New River Valley, including Christiansburg, Blacksburg, Radford and Montgomery County.

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