“The message I got from her was, ‘It’s a mistake, it happens.’ It doesn’t have to define who you are, and it doesn’t have to define the group you’re in."
When Gauri Patwardhan stepped into Faten Sakallah’s introductory computer science class at Irvine High School in Irvine, California, she felt nervous. It was a new course being offered at the school, and as she looked around the classroom, she noticed that the boys outnumbered the girls.
“Initially, I felt that maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe girls aren’t as good at computer science,” Gauri said.
Gauri’s teacher for the class, Faten Sakallah, would soon change her opinion about girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and show her that success has nothing to do with gender. Sakallah is a Palestinian raised in Kuwait, where she studied electrical engineering. She came to the U.S. to get her graduate degree in computer engineering.
After spending a few years working as an engineer, Sakallah realized she wanted to spend more time with her family and be with her children during the day. As she considered career alternatives, she began volunteering so much time at her children’s schools that one of her son’s teachers suggested she pursue teaching. The idea resonated with Sakallah, and within a few years, she was teaching math in her own classroom at Irvine High School.
In addition to Calculus and AP Calculus, Sakallah added Computer Science to her teaching portfolio. In her opinion, all students can benefit from computer science: Simply having the technical skills learned in class can create endless opportunities for students, Sakallah says, whether they work in STEM or not. Sakallah had another specific and very important goal: to increase the number of girls in her Computer Science classes.
“Getting girls into STEM is very close to my heart, because when I worked in the industry, I was surrounded by men. There were very few females in the area. And even when I went to college, it was mainly males.”
Her motivation was personal: she remembered what it was like being the only girl in a STEM environment.
“Getting girls into STEM is very close to my heart because when I worked in the industry, I was surrounded by men. There were very few females in the area,” Sakallah said. “And even when I went to college, it was mainly males.”
But increasing the number of girls in computer science isn’t as easy as it sounds, Sakallah says, even when the teacher is a former female engineer. In her experience, Sakallah has found that girls shy away from STEM because they feel that they don’t have what it takes to do well. Because of that, they need a lot of encouragement, and Sakallah had just the idea to motivate them: after-school activities.
Sakallah formed two clubs, LinkBot Robotics and Girls Who Code. LinkBot Robotics teaches students problem-solving skills and shows them how to work in a team through programming challenges using modular robots called LinkBots. The club then competes in an annual local competition.
Girls Who Code is a national organization whose mission is to close the gender gap in technology and build a pipeline of future female engineers. Each chapter of the club works to educate and inspire young women with the computing skills needed for 21st century career opportunities. Sakallah’s group is currently learning the Python programming language and working on a budget application.
These clubs first brought Gauri and Sakallah together. Gauri’s father is a software engineer, and she had always been interested in STEM. However, her previous STEM classes hadn’t excited her curiosity. But that was about to change.
In her freshman year at Irvine High School, Gauri signed up for both LinkBot Robotics and Girls Who Code. She was deeply inspired by the engineer-turned-teacher, who she noticed often stayed late into the evening for club activities or to help her students with their homework. Gauri also respected the fact that Sakallah was a woman teaching STEM who had worked in the industry.
“I try to push them so that they don’t quit early and so that they can feel empowered. Even if it takes you longer to learn, you can still do it. Look for the end goal, don’t look for immediate satisfaction and you will get there."
In the clubs, Gauri learned Sakallah’s most important mantra: practice, practice, practice, a lesson Gauri put to use right away. Although she really liked what she was doing in the LinkBot Robotics club, she and her team struggled first year. In fact, Gauri said that in one of the robotics competitions, her team didn’t even place.
“I try to push them so that they don’t quit early and so that they can feel empowered,” Sakallah said. “Even if it takes you longer to learn, you can still do it. And you know, look for the end goal, don’t look for immediate satisfaction and you will get there. It might be a bit harder for you, but you can do it.”
The following year, Gauri returned to the club and asked Sakallah for guidance on how to improve. The teacher encouraged her but also pushed her to figure it out on her own. According to Gauri, Sakallah told her that although hadn’t yet been successful coding robotics, she would get better if she stuck with it.
“From that moment on, I spent a lot more time by myself figuring out how to make code work. I spent hours on simulations to test my code to see what would happen. That’s how I improved, with practice,” Gauri said. “And I was really proud to say that I could do something even though I was terrible at it initially.”
Monica Colunga, principal at Irvine High School, says Sakallah is an advocate for all students, and that she works to empower them and teach them to advocate for themselves. If a student shows interest in STEM, Colunga says, Sakallah is always there to support them–though they know she’ll never do the work for them.
Students trust her, Colunga continues, and they’re always gravitating to her classroom at all hours throughout the day. That includes the young women in the LinkBot Robotics and Girls Who Code clubs, whom Colunga describes as excited, articulate and confident.
“What Faten provides for her students is a sense of confidence, a promotion of positive self-esteem, and a belief that regardless of the disproportionality that might exist in STEM, they can do it,” Colunga said.
In Gauri’s case, that’s exactly what happened. By the end of her freshman year, she felt so more comfortable in STEM subjects that she enrolled in Sakallah’s introductory Computer Science course. When she walked in the class, however, Gauri realized that unlike in the LinkBot Robotics and Girls Who Code clubs, in the Computer Science class there were far more boys than girls.
Despite her initial trepidation, Gauri learned, with Sakallah’s support, that her gender didn’t matter, and that if she continued to practice diligently, she could do whatever she set her mind to. She began to take leadership roles in the classroom, and when the class got to the robotics unit, Gauri assisted students who had never coded before with the class assignments and instructions.
“It was like giving the right nutrition to a sapling at the right time. You need the right teacher, the right environment, the right encouragement for the sapling to take root.”
Kedar Patwardhan, Gauri's father
Sakallah helped Gauri overcome another challenge: the fear of failure. Gauri confided that when she made a mistake on a project, she would not only worry that she herself would look bad, but also that she would confirm a negative stereotype of all women in STEM fields. But Sakallah challenged Gauri’s understanding of her mistakes, and encouraged her to focus instead on learning from her experiences.
“The message I got from her was, ‘It’s a mistake, it happens,’” Gauri said. “‘It doesn’t have to define who you are, it doesn’t have to define the group you’re in.’ Her advice has made me more comfortable about getting into the field.”
Gauri’s father, Kedar Patwardhan, says the change in his daughter has been profound. Before Gauri began working with Sakallah, for example, Patwardhan says he used to supervise her to make sure she did her homework. Gauri now takes responsibility for her work because she genuinely seeks mastery of the knowledge. Patwardhan has seen Gauri become much more confident and independent in her work, and he is endlessly grateful to Sakallah for her impact on Gauri.
“It was like giving the right nutrition to a sapling at the right time,” Patwardhan said. “It’s the delicate part of forming. You need the right teacher, the right environment, the right encouragement for the sapling to take root.”
After her sophomore year, Gauri and her family moved, and she transferred to Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach, California. At her new school, she was disappointed to find that there were no robotics or STEM clubs for girls; with her newfound confidence, she took it upon herself to found chapters of both LinkBot Robotics and Girls Who Code at Newport Harbor. She is currently the president of both clubs.
When Sakallah found out that Gauri had nominated her for the Honored National Teaching Award, she says she felt humbled and overwhelmed.
“When people ask me why I teach, this is why I teach: You are helping students become better citizens, and you are shaping their future, to know what they want, to go after what they want,” Sakallah says.
“I’m proud to be a girl in the field because I feel that I’m kind of reassuring others that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl. You can achieve things to the best of your abilities.”
Gauri is now 16 years old and studying for the SAT, and Sakallah’s ongoing mentorship has helped her envision her own future in STEM. She plans to get a degree in computer science and specialize in quantum computing and artificial intelligence. Her goal is to develop code and programs to make the world a better place.
“I’m proud to be a girl in the field because I feel that I’m kind of reassuring others that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl,” she says. “You can achieve things to the best of your abilities.”
Photos by Kyusung Gong
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