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Teacher wins National Female Diversity STEM Award

CMSD News Bureau -- 02/01/24

The late James Brown and his co-author, Betty Jean Newsome, once famously wrote a bestselling song called "It's A Man's World."

The singers weren't voicing opinions about the workforce that makes up computer science, computer engineering, or most other STEM fields. They may as well have been.

In 2022, females were awarded just 20 % of undergraduate degrees nationally in computer science and 22% of the degrees awarded in computer engineering. The rest of the degrees went to men, who dominate STEM-related industries and educational opportunities.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has an answer to this stark gender inequity. Her name is Tamilselvi (Tami) Sekaran. 

Mrs. Sekaran is the 11th and 12th-grade computer science and AP computer science educator at the Cleveland Early College High School on the John Hay campus.

Last month, Mrs. Sekaran was announced as a 2023 recipient of the College Board's AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award.

With just over 800 schools being acknowledged nationally for their work toward equal gender representation in Computer Science Principles (CSP), the College Board noted that Mrs. Sekaran intentionally provides all her students with the necessary tools and access to excel in the traditionally male-dominated field of computer science.

"Mrs. Sekaran is a once-in-a-lifetime teacher," said Cleveland Early College High School principal Staci Starr. "There is something to be said about the number of female students that want to take her class. The amount of time and effort she puts into her students is bar none."

Mrs. Sekaran discovered her passion for computer science during her own high school experience while growing up in India. As she furthered her education, she also grew her self-confidence. She saw a need to help other females who may have been apprehensive to participate in AP-level computer science courses.

"I believe in my kids, and they trust me," states Mrs. Sekaran. 

"I tell them all, if I can do it, you can do it, and whatever I know, I make sure they know. I encourage them all to at least try, and they know not to tell me 'No' before they have at least attempted to do their best."

The College Board's diversity award recognizes schools that reach 50% or higher female examinee representation in one or both AP computer science courses or whose percentage of female examinees met or exceeded that of the school's female population.

Mrs. Sekaran saw 86.4% of her students pass the 2019 AP Computer Science courses (before the pandemic led to remote learning) and 63.6% in 2023.

"Mrs. Sekaran has the highest expectations for everyone," said 9th-grade math teacher Ryan Evensen-Hein. "She wants nothing less than your best effort because that's what she gives to all her students."

Mrs. Sekaran, who has taught for 15 years, has affected students and staff with her diligent efforts to identify and encourage students to participate in AP classes.

"I can't tell you how much I have grown in the last two years working with Mrs. Sekaran," says Evensen-Hein.

"She encourages kids all year long to just simply try, even if they just join an after-school program such as 'Girls Who Code,' offered through CASE Western Reserve; she's a great motivator," he added.

Mrs. Sekaran is quick to credit the efforts of Mrs. Chelsy Cook-Kohn, Director of the CMSD Tech Talent Pipeline, for being a wonderful resource for training connections through Cleveland State University.

"I didn't want just to teach computer science, I wanted to teach AP, so whatever further training I needed during this time to teach AP courses, Chelsy helped make sure I got it with CSU," she said.

Now, as a nationally recognized educator, Mrs. Sekaran knows that the future of females driving technological innovation starts with girls being introduced to computer science courses in high school or sooner. Using their secondary education as a stepping-stone to other advanced STEM educational opportunities helps prepare them for a bright future.

"I want my students to take AP courses," says Mrs. Sekaran. "I tell them all to come, try it out, and believe in themselves. I'm just showing them the right path for the present work."