Getting Girls Into Coding

imageSarah Boyd.

Women are missing from the technology landscape in Australia. According to a 2013 Australian workforce study, they occupy less than 20 percent of positions in the majority of ICT occupations (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, 2013). It is no different in the US where Google and LinkedIn both have only 17 percent of their technical employees women, with Facebook having just 15 percent. This situation is not improving. Figures from the Department of Education show just over one in four domestic IT enrolments were female in 2001, but by 2013 girls made up fewer than one in five tertiary IT students.

Why are Girls Needed?

Some people might say, so what? Why is there a need for girls to learn coding and grow up to work in ICT? There is a predicted shortage of ICT workers in the future and engaging girls makes sense. Google, Facebook and LinkedIn all agree and are putting real money into attracting girls into technology. Google is funding programs to the tune of $50 million around the US and worldwide to engage girls in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Facebook and LinkedIn have just launched a collaborative initiative involving mentoring and support programs at colleges to get more women involved in studying engineering and computer science. There are other advantages to more women working in technology. The diversity brought to the workplace by women improves productivity and ultimately the bottom line, according to a workplace study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, 2014).

Some people say that girls are not interested in coding and technology, so why should they be pushed into it. However, this cannot be true; women gamers are now a bigger group than teenage boys and so surely it makes sense for more women to be designing and building the games they play.

When to Start

The answer to encouraging girls into technology careers lies in introducing coding and computer science ways of thinking in primary school. Research has shown that the earlier girls get involved in technology, the more likely they are to stay engaged. In the new Australian Digital Technologies curriculum, computational thinking is introduced in years K-2 and visual programming in Years 3 and 4. Computational thinking is a set of problem-solving skills and techniques that computer scientists use when they write code. Visual programming is a simplified form of coding which uses visual blocks that ‘snap’ together.

How to Start

For teachers who have never heard of computational thinking or visual programming, do not despair. There is plenty of help out there and it is not even necessary to have computers or iPads in the classroom to get started. There are a set of excellent free resources for ‘unplugged’ computer science at csunplugged.org that includes games and activities using playing cards. There are more unplugged activities on the Code.org website (code.org/learn). Code.org is also an excellent website for teachers; it has hours of lessons ready to go for primary and high school teachers. As well as being a website, Code.org is an American non-profit organisation that is dedicated to expanding participation in computer science and has lots of great promotional videos encouraging students to take up coding.

 

For teaching younger students visual programming, Blockly Games, Tynker Games and Scratch Jr are a great place to start. Blockly Games (blockly-games.appspot.com) is managed by Google and is similar to Tynker Games (https://www.tynker.com/hour-of-code/); they are both websites with games that teach simple programming concepts. Scratch Jr (http://www.scratchjr.org/teach.html) is a free iPad app that is a junior version of Scratch. Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) is a programming environment developed by MIT that can be downloaded or used on the web. It is also free and is sophisticated enough to challenge the most advanced Stage 3 students. There is a whole community of resources for Scratch and it is easy to find good lesson plans that integrate Scratch into the classroom. See http://scratched.gse.harvard.edu/ to get started.

Robotics is another way to engage students in coding and is not just for boys. The author runs workshops regularly with mixed classes ranging in ages from 6 to 16 and the girls are just as engaged as the boys. The LEGO EV3 robot is great for older primary kids, while the LEGO Wedo robot works well for Stages 1 and 2. LEGO robots do require some investment, so it might be worthwhile checking out the new addition to the market, the Australian-designed Edison robot (meetedison.com) which is also compatible with LEGO pieces but considerably cheaper.

Fitting Coding into the Curriculum

An obvious question many primary teachers will have is, “How do I fit coding into my already packed timetable?” It is best to integrate it into something that is already being done in the classroom. MacICT runs a professional learning course showing teachers how to integrate coding across the curriculum. Some examples include:

  • Robotics and maths – using robots, teachers can combine coding with teaching mathematical concepts such as estimation, measurement and decimal numbers.
  • Robotics and science – there are many simple physical principles that can be illustrated using robotics, such as forces, sensors, speed, distance, sound, gears and levers.
  • Scratch Jr and storytelling – Scratch Jr is set up so teachers can choose settings, characters and assign actions to characters in stories.
  • Scratch and music – students can program their own music using Scratch.
  • Scratch and art – students can design characters, scenes and animations in Scratch.

 It is Different for Girls

There is a lot of research to help teachers who really want to succeed in engaging girls in coding. The main findings are:

  • Girls like collaborative work (Denner & Werner 2009).
  • Girls prefer to use coding to achieve something they are interested in rather than just for its own sake (Liston, Peterson & Ragan, 2008).
  • The physical environment is important to girls (for example, Star Wars posters in the computer lab) (Girl Scout).
  • Girls rate their ability lower than boys even if it is the same and improving girls’ beliefs about their ability could alter their choice and performance (Hill et al, 2010).
  • Girls respond well to specific positive feedback (Blackwell, Trzesniewski & Dweck, 2007).
  • Girls respond well to positive female role models and field trips (Halpern et al, 2007).

Teachers should try to keep these factors in mind when they are planning their units of work so that both boys and girls will be successful and engaged. They should look at the physical layout of the computer labs at school and consider the types of projects they are designing. Focus needs to be on giving girls specific feedback and providing positive female role models. For teachers that need inspiration, there are several websites devoted to getting girls into coding, such as Google’s https://www.madewithcode.com/, Girlswhocode.com, girldevelopit.com and codefirstgirls.org.uk. The important thing is for teachers to just get coding and make sure they take the girls along them.

Sarah Boyd is a STEM Educator with practical industry experience in software and engineering. Sarah is currently a facilitator at MacICT where she teaches Lego Robotics to primary and high school students as well as helping to develop new courses related to programming, game design, microcontrollers and the Maker movement.

 

For a full list of references, email info@mediasolutions.com.au

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