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Engaging Girls in Computing: Observations from a Teacher in the UK

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Nicki Maddams, a teacher in the UK, offers her insights into getting girls interested in computing.
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Recently, I have been investigating the much talked about issue of the lack of women entering the IT/Technology industry, an industry of which women make up just 17% of the workforce. From my observations as a teacher it is clear that in their younger years, particularly ages 11 to 12, girls seem quite enthusiastic about the subject; we receive a fairly reasonable number of girls in information and communications technology (ICT) at GCSE level but when it comes to A-Level choices the numbers drop significantly1. Out of twenty-two students across my A-level classes, I only have one girl taking the subject this year, which is a drop from last year’s four. So my question is why? There is no shortage of female role models in my school; in fact the ICT faculty up until recently was made up of all women. What makes girls decide that ICT is not a viable option in which to continue into A-Level, University and a future career?  In this article, I’ll explore the question of why we don’t see more girls going into computing, and what I am doing to try and change this disparity.

Finding Role Models

Many of the girls aspire to a career in care work or hair and beauty. These choices are selected because girls see females they know going into these jobs and therefore view them as more realistic options for the future. They are not often in contact with women in the IT industry, so the industry remains a little mysterious and perhaps unrealistic to them. Boys, on the other hand, are exposed to role models on television, movies and games. A lot of boys I speak to are interested in the world of game design so they can make the next “Call of Duty” or similar game..

Geeky Barbie

One way I have started to address this issue of gender disparity in IT is by the creation of a website, titled Geeky Barbie’s Travels.. I bought a “Computer Engineer career Barbie” about a year ago, and she has become my mascot that I take to various teaching events and conferences. She became particularly popular at Microsoft’s Global Forum in Prague in December, where I won the award for “Innovative Use of Technology.” The website features interviews with women in the IT and Technology industries so girls can find out about the jobs available along with the routes into them and the stories behind the women in the roles. It has started well and many women have kindly submitted interviews to be featured on the site.

Keeping Girls Engaged

I mentioned earlier that girls seem quite enthusiastic at ages 11 to 12. I have, however, noticed that they begin to switch off by the time they reach age 13. This is something that is consistent with all students, however, and not just girls. Age 13 is the most challenging age to teach, largely due to changes in hormones and the children trying to establish their place in the school society. We have been doing some interesting work in ICT recently in my age 13 class, I have introduced computing in the form of programming. With this I have kept to gender neutral themes--the current topic is based around creating a drawing program to put designs on T-shirts. I typically try to pick gender-neutral topics as much as I can, and where possible, I allow students to choose their own topics. For example, next term students will be designing a quiz-style mobile phone app, and I intend to allow the students to pick their own theme for the quiz, as the important thing is the programming and not the content of the questions. By allowing them this freedom it will hopefully engage them and motivate them into the programming of the app as they will, no doubt, wish to ensure it works.

Most of my students--both boys and girls--have found programming a difficult topic to understand, I believe this is largely due to the lack of computing at a young age (thankfully something that is due to change in the UK over the next few years). One thing I have noticed, however, is that many of the girls struggle more than the boys and are less likely to just give it a go and “hope for the best.” Don’t get me wrong--many of the boys lack this skill, too, but it seems a little more prevalent in some of the girls, who are more likely to just sit there and hope that I don’t notice that they have done nothing for part of the lesson!

When speaking to some of the girls, it seems they prefer doing things in class that don’t present a challenge. They prefer using non-threatening tools like Microsoft Office--something they know inside and out--where they can be confident of their success when using such tools. It is the fear of failure that seems to hold them back in the world of programming.

Pair Programming and Game Design

So what can we do to change their views? By starting computing at a young age for all students, I am hoping to see a huge difference in attitudes toward problem solving, but right now this doesn’t help my current students. In the summer term I plan to run a two-day Girls Game Workshop; I am going to be working with a group of mostly 13-year-old girls who will work in pairs to design and develop their own games.  By running this over two days it will enable me to begin with the less daunting parts of game development such as designing/writing the story for the game, planning the characters, and creating the artwork. Once they are confident and happy with their designs, they will hopefully be quite keen to put it all together into a game, and this should motivate them to want to do the programming to get it working. By arranging them to work in pairs, it should help their confidence with the programming as they will be able to work together to solve problems rather than feeling like they are alone. I will get the girls to complete an entrance and exit questionnaire to enable me to measure the impact of the session and compare their views of the industry before and after. I intend to review this workshop and hopefully run something similar on a regular basis with different groups of girls.

Next Steps

Over the next few months, I plan to interview some of the girls in my school and compile a questionnaire for girls, both in my school and further afield to complete, in order to gather more insights into why  girls are not going into computing.  I hope to share my questionnaire results at that time.  In the meantime, I’ll continue my efforts to expose girls to computing so that more of them may see it as an exciting and viable career.

1. In the UK, GCSEs are the exams students take at age 16. These determine what they are able to take following compulsory schooling; for example, College or Sixth form. They take A-Levels at age 18, and the results from these will enable them to go on and study at university.

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