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Girls, Computers, and STEAM

Erik Hash Herman on Flickr

In spite of the fact many of computer science’s early pioneers were women, CS has grown into perhaps the most male-dominated branch of science in both industry and academia. During the late 1990’s this trend sparked interest from both social and computer scientists. Since then, several studies have been conducted to determine how this gender gap arose, and how to attract more girls and women to this fascinating field.

The studies’ findings are similar. They rarely, if ever, reveal females’ inability to grasp computer science concepts, and only superficially discuss females’ interest in the subject. Instead, the most significant factors include socialization, confidence, and presentation of the subject.

Although the underpinnings of computer science lie in advanced mathematics, and computer scientists apply challenging logic to write complex code, many in the field began exploring the subject at a young age. How can this be? Are they all child prodigies?

As it turns out, typing in snippets of code does not require much more than a bit of curiosity and an adventuresome spirit. Even the beginnings of the logic involved in coding are not too complicated for an elementary school student to understand.

However, the more comfortable one is with testing out ideas and working with material that one only partially understands, the more likely one is to have fun with computer science at a young age.

These activities all involve risk-taking and tolerance for failure. In fact, once one moves beyond introductory projects, there is often a feeling of working in a black box in which the programmer cannot see exactly what she is doing. However, by testing out ideas, a budding programmer will begin to understand how a program works before she understands the details of the math and logic.

Risk taking is an attribute more commonly associated with males than females. It may be partially “built-in”, but there is strong evidence showing that it is also a result of socialization. Psychologists studying children as young as four years old have found that parents tend to let their male children wander further at playgrounds than their female children before calling them back. Other classic psychology studies examine how adults respond to infants based on gender. In one such study, psychologists John Condry and Sandra Condry had subjects watch videos of babies reacting to emotionally stimulating toys. Those who were told the infant was a boy frequently attributed crying in response to a jack-in-the box as the result of anger. Others were told the infant was a girl. When the infant began to cry in response to the toy, they attributed the reaction to fear.

Years of such subtle reactions and messages may teach girls to be more risk-averse than boys. In fact, in their book Unlocking the Clubhouse, researchers Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher note that girls tend to be perfectionists and avoid risk taking at much higher rates than boys. When a risk-averse child is presented with an activity such as computer science that involves making guesses and learning through frequent failures, they often need extra encouragement to persist and have fun with the process. However, very few computer science classes offer such consideration.

Lack of interest is also frequently cited as a possible reason for the dearth of females in CS.

In her work at Carnegie Mellon, Jane Margolis interviewed groups of male and female students regarding their early childhood experiences with computers and their attitudes toward programming as young adults. The findings are intriguing. Males did indeed tend to have more interest in the technicalities of computers. There were more males than females that enjoyed tinkering with both hardware and software starting at a young age. They seemed to like coding for the sake of learning about the computer, and often became consumed by it, spending much of their teenage years engrossed in computer code.

The female students at Carnegie Mellon involved in the study were also top students that enjoyed problem solving and computing. However, they seldom became obsessed with code. They emphasized they did not want coding to take over their lives, and they want to use computer science to help humanity. Indeed, the females in the study were very interested in computer science, but usually more in its applications to solve real-world problems than in the computer itself.

Unfortunately, traditional computer science classes focus more on the technical aspects of computing and less on its connections to real world problems and solutions.

Over the past 20 years significant effort has been put into applying these findings to increasing the number of female graduates from top computer science programs. Carnegie Mellon offers a class that introduces computing with applications to culture, music, and visual arts. Harvey Mudd has an introduction to computer science class with applications to biology. MIT, UC Berkeley, and Stanford also offer classes that focus not only on the technical aspects of computers, but also on projects involving art, game design, and data simulation. Other schools are following in their footsteps.

Families and schools can use these results to help children of any gender become excited about the subject. We can encourage risk-taking in play, and become conscious of our tendency to attribute girls’ adverse reactions to fear.

We can also create inclusive, diverse computer science classes and clubs at home and in school that include applications of the subject to real world problems, and connect computing to a broad range of interests. Jane Margolis and her team at UCLA developed a high school curriculum called Exploring Computer Science, written to give students a taste of varied applications of computers. Bootstrap World curriculum appeals to middle and high school students and their teachers who enjoy mathematics. Google created CS First to encourage kids to start coding clubs. MIT has a variety of coding-related products designed for kids to have fun with while learning to code. Both boys and girls today have the opportunity to explore programming in ways that complement their interests. However, there is still plenty of work to be done.

For those students who initially show a lack of interest or confidence, let’s not assume computer science is not for them. Seek out guest speakers that use computer science in a variety of fields. Computer science is a broad field with myriad applications. It takes children months, if not years, to conclude that computing is, or is not, for them.

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