Today we’re hearing from Jaleesa Trapp, a second-year PhD student in MIT’s Media Lab from Tacoma, Wash. who is also a STEM/computer science teacher. Jaleesa works with the Lifelong Kindergarten research group—the same group that created Scratch—and her research focuses on designing equitable and playful technology experiences with and for youth. Take it away, Jaleesa!

Can you tell us where you work and what you do in your current role?

I’m a second-year PhD student at the MIT Media Lab with the Lifelong Kindergarten research group (the group that created Scratch). My current focus is designing equitable and playful technology experiences with and for youth. I’m also a STEM Technologies teacher in Tacoma, Wash. In the past, I taught Computer Science, but currently I’m teaching a class called Propel, where I’m co-designing middle school STEM activities with high school students. One of our biggest goals in Propel is to help eliminate barriers for youth to go into STEM.

How did you first become interested in computer science?

I first became interested in Computer Science when I was in the 8th grade. I was a member of the Tacoma Computer Clubhouse and worked on a project with my friend call “What if There Were No Black People?” It was an interactive CD-ROM that highlighted the inventions of Black people in the U.S. I was very interested in Black history, so it wasn’t until halfway through that I realized I was also learning how to code. This was before Scratch existed, so I used Macromedia Director, and learned a language called Lingo. (I later learned that Lingo was invented by a Black man named John Thompson, and that made me even more interested).

What barriers, if any, did you encounter on your journey learning computer science? What barriers, if any, do you still encounter in the workplace?

I faced many barriers. One of the biggest barriers was not being able to take “traditional” CS classes in high school. My school didn’t offer any, so I learned through working on projects on topics I was interested in.

When I got to the University of Washington I was not prepared for the CS courses. I did terrible and I hated them so much, because they wanted me to code in a very specific way. I didn’t know anyone with a CS degree, and the advisors I met didn’t take the time to get to know me, and suggested I switch my major to English or Black Studies. I was determined, and sought help elsewhere. In the process I learned that there was a place for me in the Human Centered Design and Engineering department. In this program I was able to code and work on projects that were relevant and interesting to me. I ended up receiving my bachelor’s degree in this department, with a concentration in Human-Computer Interactions.

The barrier that I faced was not having the resources I needed to be successful. “Resources” in my case were that a class was not offered, I was the first in my family to navigate going straight to a 4-year university and pursuing a STEM degree, my social network not consisting of computer scientists, and not having the academic support I needed. These are still barriers I see today for many youth.

Can you tell us about someone (or a group or organization) who encouraged you to study computer science?

One of my biggest inspirations to study computer science was my late mentor, Luversa Sullivan. She always told me I was brilliant. She told me I belonged in Tech. She told me to stand up for what’s right and to give back to my community. She told me that if I learn something new, I should teach it to at least two others, because we should lift as we climb. She encouraged me to apply to a Microsoft internship when I was in high school. I was hesitant, because I didn’t think I was good enough. I applied, and I intern at Microsoft as a high school student. Twice. She told me about the MIT Media Lab, and that if I wanted to go there, I could. What was most inspiring was that she backed up everything she said. She was a Black woman with hair like mine who could code, build robots, film, edit video, and anything else she put her mind to. And she inspired me myself, authentically, while pursuing my dreams.

Another inspiration is my mom. She had no idea what I was doing (sometimes she still doesn’t), but made every effort she could to make sure I could pursue my dreams. When I interned at Microsoft, she made sure I was up at 4:30am and often would walk me to the bus stop (1 of 3 buses I took) so that I could get to my office by 8AM. She made sure that if there were barriers, she went and found the person who could remove them, so that I could keep going.

Do you have any advice for girls or young women who want to start learning computer science?

My advice is to explore. Think of what you already enjoy doing and see if there’s a connection to computer science…the answer is probably yes. I really loved Legos when I was younger, so when I discovered Lego robotics in high school I was inspired to learn more, and ended up leading a Lego robotics after school program at a local middle school. As an adult, I like to connect the physical and digital world, and that’s what I get to do in my research lab and with my students. There is more than one way to be a computer scientist, and I think if more people knew that, we’d have a more diverse and welcoming field.

Thank you, Jaleesa! Stay tuned for the next installment of our Women’s History Month “5 questions with” series coming later week. You can also read our previous interviews with Adafruit’s Limor FriedGoogle’s Sanaz Ahari Lemelson, and author and STEM activist Sasha Alston.

Find more resources for inspiring girls and young women to learn computer science here.

-Kirsten O’Brien,