Social Coding: Engaging Girls in K-8 Computer Science

“Female Pupils In Science Lesson Studying Robotics” by Highwaystarz-Photography
Getty Images Pro, via Canva.

In module 1 of our DEL program class Digital Learning Environments, we are looking at ISTE Coaching Standard 3 “Technology coaches create and support effective digital age learning environments to maximize the learning of all students” (ISTE, 2011). 

In this post I would like to explore how teachers can promote collaboration and cultural relevance in K-8 Computer Science lessons to increase girls’ interest in coding, addressing indicator a: “Model effective classroom management and collaborative learning strategies to maximize teacher and student use of digital tools and resources and access to technology-rich learning environments” (ISTE, 2011).

Why Girls’ Interest in Computer Science Matters

Figure 1 shows the current state of U.S. women in Computer Science education and professions.

Figure 1: Current State of U.S. Women in Computer Science Education and Professions. Data Source: “Women and Information Technology – By the Numbers”  National Center for Women & Technology.

In 2018, only 26% of professional computing positions were held by women. This number has barely changed over several decades, but our use of technology has increased astronomically.

“If we are ensuring that there are diverse teams and diverse folks at the table at every step of the pipeline, it creates the opportunity to have tech look like the world that it represents, which benefits us in a million different ways.”

Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder
(Guide to Inclusive Computer Science Education, 2019)

Increased diversity in the tech industry would not only result in products that better reflect the needs of the people who use them, it would also create opportunities for more women and people of color to benefit from some of the most in-demand, highest-paying careers.

Belief in Stereotypes Starts Young…

“Despite multiple efforts to provide counter normative images of computer science, most adolescents describe computer scientists as white males mesmerized by a blank screen, working in dark isolation from others.

Scott & White (2013), p. 659

Though the quote above describes adolescents’ view of Computer Scientists, students can form opinions of who “belongs” in math and science roles as early as elementary school. In a survey of research on drawings of scientists made by children from the 1980s onward, only 28% of students on average drew a female scientist (Young, 2018). 

There are ways, however, to help children change their views of who can grow up to be a Computer Scientist, including those in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Engaging Girls in Computer Science.
“Ada Byron at age seventeen” (1832); Scanned from The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron by Joan Baum. Originally from the Lovelace-Byron Collection. Public Domain. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/2ZfEU4b

How Teachers View Computer Science Matters Too

In U.S. public schools as of the 2015-16 school year, 89% of Elementary teachers and 64% of Secondary teachers were women (The National Center for Educational Statistics, 2018). It’s not just young girls who may have doubts about their ability to excel at Computer Science. Just as math anxiety in teachers can affect girls, teachers can affect female students’ belief in their computer science abilities. To counter this, teachers can: 

  • Develop an awareness of their own stereotypes surrounding Computer Science
  • Educate themselves about the important role that women and other under-represented groups have played in Computer Science both now and in the past
  • Understand and convey that Computer Science is a collaborative discipline
  • Try coding themselves, starting with Scratch – nothing dispels the mystery surrounding coding more than doing it yourself!
  • Understand how computational thinking applies in many different disciplines and subjects
  • Realize they don’t have to have all the answers and that coding is something they can learn together with their students

In her book The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates tells the story of a female math teacher at her all-girls high school who insisted to the principal that the school invest in some computers after seeing an Apple II+ for the first time at a conference. The teacher began to attend night classes to learn how to program and started to teach the girls during the day. This was the spark that led Melinda to get a degree in Computer Science and eventually work at Microsoft.

Make Girls Aware of “People Like Them” in Computer Science

The contributions that women and people of color have made to Computer Science are extremely impressive, not only in terms of technical brilliance and hard work, but in the dignity and determination they showed while dealing with workplace discrimination.

Teachers can highlight the variety of people who have contributed to Computer Science by displaying posters and using books and videos to tell their stories. They can also invite female developers and other technology workers into their classrooms to describe what they do. If that isn’t possible, they can schedule a Skype-a-Scientist meeting with a Computer Scientist. Doing this not only influences the girls in their class, but changes the way boys think about who can be a technology leader.

Figure 2: Annie Easely worked for NASA from 1955 – 1989 as a computer scientist, mathematician & later an EEO counselor. For more information see her bio at: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/annie-easley-computer-scientist. Photo Source: NASA. Attribution: Public Domain. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Annie_Easley_in_NASA.jpg

Make Coding Social

Software development is a very collaborative activity, requiring input from teams of people from a variety of disciplines. It truly is a myth that programmers work alone. Even the actual writing of code can be done together and is referred to as pair programming, where one person acts as the Navigator, making suggestions and watching for errors in logic or syntax, while the Driver writes the code, describing what they are doing and answering the Navigator’s questions. 

Researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz found that when pair programming was used in Intro to Computer Science classes, students (especially females) were more likely to complete the course and go on to major in Computer Science. Pair programming has also shown to produce code with fewer errors, and pair programmers claimed to enjoy their jobs more and have greater confidence in their abilities than non-pair programmers (McDowell, C., Werner, L., Bullock, H., and Fernald, J., 2002).

Pair programming is a necessity in classrooms without 1-1 computing, but should be seen as a positive way to foster collaboration and metacognition (Werner and Denning, 2009) as students describe their thinking to their partner. Code.org encourages pair programming in their Computer Science Fundamentals Courses, and produced the video in Figure 3 to explain the process and model appropriate pair programming behavior.

Figure 3: Pair Programming. Source: Code.org.

Colleen Lewis, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Harvey Mudd College has produced a helpful video and tip sheet on pair programming. In addition, she has done research on “buddy programming” or the practice of ‘intermittent collaboration’ when students with an assigned partner each work on their own computer but are required to discuss any problems before asking an instructor for help and must stop programming once every 5 minutes to discuss any recent progress or challenges. This method proved equally effective as pair programming, and can be another approach a teacher can take in classrooms with 1-1 devices. (Lewis, C., 2011)

Another helpful tip sheet on pair programming from etr recommends pairing friends together if possible and recognizing successful pairs as “Pair Programmers of the Week” (Campe, S., 2016).

Additional Pair Programming Resources

Tie Computer Science to Something Meaningful in Girls’ Lives

… if I cannot see my self—defined by multiple elements of my cultural identity—as being a technologist, my motivation to develop an image of this identity and engage in and value activities related to becoming a technologist may decrease over time.

Scott & White (2013), p. 661

COMPUGIRLS

Research done by Scott and White (2013) examined the efficacy of COMPUGIRLS, a 2-year long after-school and summer program where groups of 13 – 18 year old Latina and African American girls from urban Southwest school districts learned to use multimedia and coding software to support projects that focused on helping their communities. The goal of the research was to see if a program designed around “asset-building, reflection, and connectedness” has the power to sustain girls’ interest in technology and build their belief in themselves as future technologists.

People before technology

The program stressed “PBT” or People Before Technology. All participants had to successfully present their proposals for a social-justice focused project before they were given access to laptops. In this way, girls received the message that their ideas, background knowledge and relationships with each other were more important than the technology they would learn to use.

The researchers found that two primary themes contributed to the girls’ continued motivation in COMPUGIRLS and their belief in themselves as technologists:

  1. Learning and mastering technology, including disproving stereotypes of their abilities based on their age, gender, and race
  2. Using technology and learning experiences as a means of self-expression and research, particularly if the results of their work could be used to affect their communities or peers (Scott and White, 2013, p. 658)

Coding as a Means to an End

COMPUGIRLS is a 2-year intensive program. Though the length and depth of this program are ideal, there are ways to design shorter-term Computer Science lessons that appeal to girls’ sense of community and desire to help others. Coding can be woven into a project-based learning assignment such as using Scratch to tell the story of their family background or an environmental problem faced by their community. Students can use MIT App Inventor to create an Android or iOS app that people can use on their phones. Figure 4 includes a video from Google’s Made with Code website that showcases real projects that young students have done to help others.

If learning to code is seen as a means to an end, girls will have more incentive to pursue it.

Additional Project Based Learning Resources

https://youtu.be/hcZnsSFtMn0
Figure 4: Made with Code: Gitanjali Rao, Inventor. Source: Google: https://www.madewithcode.com/mentors/

Engaging Girls in K-8 Computer Science: Links

References

Berwick, C. (2019). Keeping girls in STEM: 3 Barriers, 3 Solutions. Edutopia. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/article/keeping-girls-stem-3-barriers-3-solutions

Campe, S. (2016).  Pair programming: 10 cool tips to make it work in your classrooms. Retrieved from: https://www.etr.org/blog/research-pair-programming/

Gates, Melinda (2019) The Moment of Lift. New York: Flat Iron Books.

Guide to inclusive computer science education (2019). Microsoft Philanthropies. Retrieved from: https://www.ncwit.org/sites/default/files/resources/microsoftguidetoinclusivecomputerscienceeducation.pdf

ISTE Standards for coaches (2011). ISTE. Retrieved from: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches.

Lewis, C. (2016) CS Teaching Tips: Tips for pair programming. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/TWj78n4ZuMY (video) and PDF: http://csteachingtips.org/tips-for-pair-programming

Lewis, C. (2011). Is pair programming more effective than other forms of collaboration for young students?  Computer Science Education, 21(2), 105-134. Retrieved from: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dcdf/0e3aad476cf31715cbcd83a3fda0a47b6696.pdf

McDowell, C., Werner, L., Bullock, H., and Fernald, J. (2002). The effects of pair-programming on performance in an introductory programming course. Presented at The 33rd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, February 7-March 3, 2002. Retrieved from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.89.6834&rep=rep1&type=pdf

The National Center for Educational Statistics (2018). Number and percentage distribution of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools, by instructional level and selected teacher and school characteristics: 1999-2000 and 2015-16. (Data from the 2015-16 school year). Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_209.22.asp.

Pair programming (2014). Code.org.  Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgkahOzFH2Q

Scott, K. A.  and White, M. A. (2013). COMPUGIRLS’ standpoint: Culturally responsive computing and its effect on girls of color. Retrieved from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.867.9514&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Werner, L., Denning, J. (2009). Pair programming in middle school: What does it look like? Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 42(1), 29–49. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ856931.pdf

Women and information technology: By the numbers (2019). National Center for Women in Information Technology. Retrieved from: https://www.ncwit.org/sites/default/files/resources/btn_05092019_web.pdf

Young, E. (2018). What we learn From 50 years of kids drawing scientists. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/03/what-we-learn-from-50-years-of-asking-children-to-draw-scientists/556025/

2 thoughts on “Social Coding: Engaging Girls in K-8 Computer Science”

  1. Yes! As a female I loved reading this post. It’s so interesting to look at the data and understand the disparities between male and female, and with the rise of CS jobs it makes it even more important. I loved the flow chart. I can’t wait to share this with teachers at my school. I also liked the way you broke down each step and provided resources for teachers. Did you make that google doc with all the resources?

    P.S. I learned something that I thought was pretty cool from the pair programming tips: “At Harvey Mudd College we call solo-programming “Buddy Programming” because students
    are expected to continue to engage with their partner as they work. Sometimes pair
    programming can help establish this collaborative relationship. Tell students exactly how
    long they will be pair programming so you don’t have students ask “When do we get to
    work by ourselves.” They might not realize how this comment might make their partner feel.”This is a great norm and term to establish and can’t wait to try it out in my own classroom. Thanks for sharing all the information and resources.

  2. Wow! Bridget, you have addressed an issue I hear debated all the time (literally, a topic in my Career and Technical Education AVID strand is should schools be required to offer computer classes for girls). You make a solid argument for the resources that will address the stereotypes behind the realities of girls in the jobs that are going to make up the future workforce. I am going to share the Pair Programing clip and your blog with several colleagues, and maybe even a lead writer who has this as a debate topic.

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