Girls and Computers

I might have stumbled on to something…

The spousal unit is big into computers. He believes a working knowledge of computers is absolutely essential for the next Lori on computergeneration, regardless of the profession or career they ultimately choose. ( I suspect some of his enthusiasm is proxy for his own silicon-chip-free childhood!) So when MIT came out with Scratch,he quickly got our 9-year-old daughter on to it, and it then spread like wildfire to her friends.

(Scratch is a programming language learning environment enabling beginners to get results without having to learn syntactically correct writing first. Created by the MIT Media Lab, it is intended to motivate for further learning through playfully experimenting and creating projects, such as interactive animations, games, etc. – Wikipedia)

Scratch allowed our daughter to build cute animation with sound from a set of pre-programmed commands. She has been having fun with it, though she hit a wall when she needed some knowledge of programming to go beyond the simple tasks that Scratch allows beginners.

That’s where Khan Academy came in.

We had been trying to get her to work on the math segments in the popular tutorial program and, while she was initially interested in solving the exercises and getting the reward points, she lost interest when she got to the point where she needed to watch the videos to learn the concepts. “Its so boooring,” she whined, and we didn’t push, mystified that Salman Khan’s easy breakdown of concepts was not appealing to her.

Then came the computer science module.  After loooking through the simpler programs she got to a point where she had to watch a tutorial. I figured that would be the end of her interest in this module as well. I was wrong.

“Finally!” she said when the tutorial began, “It’s a girl talking about computers.” The tutorial was not only in a female voice, it was perky, fun, and made my daughter feel comfortable about her ignorance. “I can relate to this,” she said and happily continued with her lesson.

My epiphany is echoed in contemporary attempts to get more women interested in the STEM fields. The AAUW Educational Foundation Commission on Technology, Gender, and Teacher Education found that “…girls are critical of the computer culture, not computer phobic. Instead of trying to make girls fit into the existing computer culture, the computer culture must become more inviting for girls.” In a report entitled “Tech Savvy – Educating Girls in the New Computer Age,” they add that “girls assert a ‘we can, but I don’t want to’ attitude toward computer technology: They insist on their abilities and skills in this area even as they vividly describe their disenchantment with the field, its careers, and social contexts. Although some of this attitude may be defensive, it is important to take a hard look at what these girls are feeling defensive about.”

The current environment is obviously not working. As academic and researcher Vivek Wadhwa points out, “Only 1 percent of high-tech startups have a woman CEO; there are almost no women in the ranks of chief technology officers; and to make matters worse, the proportion of women studying computer science has been steadily declining, from 37 percent in 1985 to 19 percent today, according to the National Science Foundation.”

Luckily, I am not the only one discovering what makes my little girl enthusiastic about computers. Organizations like AAUW and the Anita Borg Institute actively support women in technology and encourage girls to enter fields usually dominated by men. Their mission is to not only create role models to motivate girls but also to determine how to nurture that interest in early education. Social scientist and scholar Jane Margolis explains in a CNET interview, “There’s concern in all computer science departments about the low number of women and low number of African-American and Latino students….What we found is that intervention has to be done at every stage of the education pipeline, and it’s not too late at the stage of higher education.” She and other scholars in the field have found that women approach computing as a mechanism for problem solving, not necessarily as an end in itself. Universities like Carnegie Mellon have begun to provide computer education in an interdisciplinary way, providing social contexts to make the subject interesting and purposeful.

I can only be glad that our daughter still has a couple of years in elementary school. Hopefully, by the time she is in high school, the efforts of these organizations and universities will lead to a better understanding of how to motivate women and girls in technology, and how to provide careers in technology that allow for better work-life integration. Meanwhile, the solution to getting girls into computer education doesn’t seem that complicated – make computers fun, have female teachers, and talk computing in a language that girls can relate to. Bias, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

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