When I started teaching computer science at Punahou School, there were two computer science classes: an Intro and an AP course, mostly attended by boys. Occasionally, a girl would enroll in the course, and then more often than not, she would drop the course a few weeks in. “I’m not like them,” one of them told me. “I don’t fit in here.”
Over the years, we have managed to increase the percentage of girls enrolled in our courses from near zero to about 35% and trending upward. More importantly, we have worked to change the way students perceive computer science. Rather than being primarily for nerds and hackers, students now see computer science at Punahou as a rigorous, challenging course that attracts a surprisingly wide range of students from all backgrounds. Based on our experiences and research, here are some strategies for engaging more girls in computer science.
Female role models
Increasing the gender diversity of the computer science faculty should be a priority for all schools as it would provide female students--as well as students of color--with role-models and mentors. In a study conducted in a suburban area near Oklahoma University, researchers examined the correlation between an after-school engineering mentoring program led by female college students and the perceptions of sixth and seventh grade girls (Holmes, Redmond, Thomas, & High, 2012). The researchers found that high quality mentoring relationships with a female role model led to an increase in the girls’ confidence in their mathematics ability (Holmes et al., 2012). Similarly, seeing a confident and successful female computer science teacher could have a positive impact on girls and boys in computer science classes.
Another way to highlight positive female role models is to have guest speakers visit class. We have had a female programmer from the Microsoft Xbox team, a freelance web developer, and a music education app developer talk with our classes over Skype. One of my students told me that she did not realize that so much of your time as a developer is spent meeting and talking with other people on your team. She thought the job of a programmer was just sitting at a computer by yourself, which was not appealing to her. Year after year, we receive feedback from students that the guest speakers were their favorite part of the course.
Peer role models
We have found that seeing another student whom they identify with being successful in the course makes it easier to visualize themselves having similar success. Harvard’s highly popular Introduction to Computer Science course, CS50, uses undergraduate teaching fellows to teach its small sections, which are differentiated by “less comfy” and “more comfy” with the subject material. In many cases, students are taught by peers who have just completed the course twelve months earlier, so they are familiar with the most current material, and they understand where students are likely to struggle.
In our high school computer science classes, we have followed a similar model, choosing two students to be teaching assistants the following year. Rather than simply choosing the best students, we look for students who are approachable and representative of the class as a whole. We also try, whenever possible, to give students the freedom to choose which walkthrough or section to attend based on their comfort level with what we are currently covering.
Context over tools
We have found that presenting courses in the context of what problem they are trying to solve, or whom they are trying to help, makes the course more appealing to girls and boys. “Building Socially Responsible Websites for Non-Profits” is more attractive than “Introduction to HTML/CSS”, even if the core skills being taught are the same.
David Nassar is the Computer Science Chair at Winchester-Thurston School. He created different “flavors” of computer science, teaching students the same basic skills, but giving students the option of learning through a humanities, music, or a math and science focus. He found a dramatic increase not only in the numbers of students choosing to progress beyond the required intro course, but also in the numbers of girls choosing to explore further computer science courses. Emphasizing the purpose of the course (create music) over the tools and language (learn EarSketch or Python) made a big difference.
Community and collaboration
We know that girls prefer to learn in a collaborative environment (Kirk & Zander, 2002). Changing the seating in the room to groups of desks, rather than lecture-style seating, is a good start. But we also work to change the nature of the learning to emphasize, even require, collaboration in order for us to move forward as a group and as a community.
We emphasize “code review” where students take turns showing each other their work once the assignment has been turned in, but before it has been graded. It is helpful for students to see that there are different ways to solve many problems. When we assign independent projects, we often group students who are doing similar projects. Although each individual has to turn in their own project, often students are solving the same problems and can help and support each other.
Encouragement by other adults
The influence of gatekeepers, or those who control course selection and advising for boys and girls in schools, is a key part of the puzzle. They can be valuable allies in building girls’ confidence in taking a computer science course, but they can also harbor outmoded, and often unconsciously biased, ideas about what computer science is.
An encouraging note from a teacher, a guidance counselor, or a parent can give girls the confidence that if they try computer science, they can succeed, and can give specific reasons why a particular girl would do well in a computer science class, depending on how they know her personally.
At our school we also regularly do outreach to our deans and college counselors to communicate that computer science is a form of patient problem-solving, that it focuses on concepts and context, rather than on tools or specific programming languages, and that encouragement by others in the community can make a big difference.
Changing culture takes time. There are still too many negative stereotypes of computer “geniuses” and hackers in the media and popular culture, and we could certainly use a greater number of positive portrayals of smart, creative women using their computing skills for good. However, by focusing on providing positive female role models for computer science in our schools, and supporting girls and young women in their endeavors, we can send a strong message that computer science is for everyone.
Holmes, S., Redmond, A., Thomas, J., & High, K. (2012). Girls helping girls: Assessing the influence of college student mentors in an afterschool engineering program. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 20(1), 137-150. //doi.org/10.1080/13611267.2012.645604
Kirk, M., & Zander, C. (2002). Bridging the digital divide by co-creating a collaborative computer science classroom. Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, 18, 117-125. Retrieved from https://dl-acm-org
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