Friday, 13 February 2015

Gettin' Girls' Geek On- 6 ways to get girls into Computer Science

There's been a lot in the media recently about the massive gender imbalance in the computer science field. As the Mum of an 11 year old self-professed "computer geek" and a teacher of twelve year old girls, this is more than slightly alarming. I could link to hundreds of articles discussing the fact that computer science is one of the most segregated and "undiverse" fields on the planet but I wont because I'm sure like me, you've seen them on an almost daily basis coming through your twitter feed. But I will share this preview with you.......

Yep, this is a very real problem for many reasons but the one that concerns me the most is that women and girls, whether intentionally or inadvertently are being excluded from the amazing opportunities that working in computer science offers. This problem is prevalent in all STEM fields and it bothers me (that's a polite way of putting it) that girls are somehow getting the message that these fields have nothing to offer them.
So what can be done to ensure that girls know that computer science is a viable and attractive career option? Here are six things we are doing at our school. I am not a Computer Science guru at our school. That would be the amazing Liz Fairhall, but as an educator and even more so as a parent, I am deeply passionate about eliminating gender inequality in the job market. So I write this, not as an educator but as a Mum who is enormously grateful for the opportunities and gorgeous people in my daughter's life, people who tell her everyday to embrace what she refers to as her "geekiness" and help her to nurture her gifts and passions. What a lucky girl.

So here are six things that I believe need to be happening if we have any hope of addressing gender inequalities in the tech field.

1. Start 'em young- 

It is obvious that young girls need exposure to technology from the early years. Computer science needs to be normalised and seen as fun and creative. Never assume a child is too young to learn the basics of coding or robotics. Our preschoolers joined us for Hour of Code and were so engaged and worked so well with their older buddies on some fun challenges. Young girls need tools that given them instant gratification so look for tools where they'll see the fruits of their labour immediately.

Year 8s help preschoolers during Hour of Code

2. Be mindful of the messages girls receive-

My daughter is very lucky to attend the girls' school where I teach and now as she enters Year 8, I can honestly say that she has never been exposed to the idea that computer science is "for boys" as our school is all about "Girl Power" in all fields. Gerard MacManus, a digital technologies educator who is doing awesome things, shared this clip with me last year. It is Mona Akbal from speaking at the itx2014 conference. At 5 minutes 30, she speaks about the fact that at her girls' school she was completely protected from any of the stereotypes about what girls should and shouldn't do and be.

For the girls at our school, depending on the messages they get at home and in their wider community, it is the same. Our girls are never exposed to that hidden curriculum stuff where the male teachers teach computer science while the women teachers send for men to get rid of the Spinning Wheel of Death or fix their broken apple tvs! Our Makerspace and Elearning director is actually an ex-pupil of our school and the girls really do want to "be" her!
Needless to say, girls at many co-ed schools are also getting strong messages both girls and boys can do anything. Woo hoo!

3. Give girls the option to share learning using computer science skills-

Be creative and allow plenty of choices when sharing learning. Instead of using drag and drop website creation tools to share learning, using HTML/CSS. Create games and animations; Scratch is awesome for this and is one of those tools that never gets old as the list of things that can be done with it is endless. Here's an animation made by one of our learners for her soon-to-be married teacher.

Think outside the square. Find ways with your learners to integrate computer science learning into all areas.

4. Use a mentoring system-

Mentoring is a very big part of the life of our school and it plays an important role in our computer science programmes. Older girls support younger learners in numerous ways, particularly with coding. Older girls are supported by staff mentors and expert mentors in the community.
We also strive to providing mentoring from women "at the coalface" in the Computer Science field. A recent field trip for passionate Year 7/8s was to the EPIC Hub an awesome tech and innovation hub which was created after Christchurch's earthquakes. This was a brilliant way to meet and talk with women (and men) about the exciting work they are doing. The girls were really inspired and the women they met were so encouraging and supportive of their passion to enter the Computer Science field. Despite their enthusiasm, the girls were alarmed at the overwhelming gender imbalance. To see what I'm talking about, watch the clip I've linked to and play "Count the Women! But the bottom line is the trip was incredibly worthwhile and the girls left even more determined and convinced that computer science is an exciting career option.

Some passionate students at the EPIC Hub, Christchurch

5. Give girls cool tools-

With the plethora of coding tools that have exploded onto the market recently, this shouldn't be a problem at all. Try apps such as Hopscotch, Daisy the Dinosaur and Kodable. Try online tutorials such as those on Khan Academy or Code Avengers or visit for some fun and creative ideas. Use tools such as MakeyMakey, Little Bits and Raspberry Pi.

Here in this clip from #educampchch, Liz demonstrates how to turn your Christmas Tree into a piano using a MakeyMakey; such a fun way to learn about circuitry.

6. Give girls the time and space to "geek" out with like-minds-

Robotics clubs, passion projects, Code Clubs, Make Clubs...all of these give girls the time and space they need to explore ideas with that social aspect that many girls crave.  A huge love of my daughter's is spending time at the Christchurch Fablab. She loves spending time there creating and working with digital fabrication techniques. Bridget McKendry who runs the Fablab is a fantastic mentor. My daughter is enrolled in the Pixel Girls club and this provides another opportunity to spend time socially while engaged in the activities she loves so much.

Girls loving the chance to "geek out" together at the Fablab, XCHC, Christchurch

These six steps won't be an overnight fix for the gender imbalance in technology but they are certainly a good start.

Disclaimer: it goes without saying that these activities are great for boys too! ;)

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