Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Why girls should learn computer programming


Lately, I have made a case for programming in the curriculum and my colleague, Sarah Macdonald, wrote about using Scratch to help students "understand their own problems, make mistakes and explore alternatives". This post is a manifesto for teaching girls in particular how to program. In it, I argue that this is an essential skill for girls to help make the future rather than see innovations as black magic which they may only consume.
Samantha (Year 9): "I have a friend who wrote a program that generates bibliographies for his school work."
Me: "That's great. How would you like to learn to write your own programs?"
Samantha: "No, Mr. Baroudi. That's what boys' schools are for!"
Picture from: canstockphoto.com


Today, I read about the Australian founder of Kaggle.com. Yet another Australian tech entrepreneur moving to Silicon Valley and attracting millions of dollars in funding. Kaggle.com crowd-sources solutions to difficult scientific problems. Most of its contributors hold a PhD. It is a great example of modern problem solving: human ingenuity combined with the computing power of the machine. Anyone who wants to participate in this endeavour must learn to give instructions to a computer. In other words, they must learn to program the computer!

"But not every student will turn out to be a programmer". This is true. It is not because we expect all our students to be artists or historians that we teach them art and history. Most girls' schools teach design technology, the design and making of clothes. If those schools were to take a purely utilitarian view of their education, they would stop at teaching them how to re-attach a button to an item of clothing. That's a skill they can use. After all, very few of them will be dress makers. Thankfully, this purely functional view is not the prevailing one in our education system. All these skills help students make sense of their world, identify their interests and develop an appreciation for other people's work when they come in contact with them.

My daughter is in primary school and is already exposed to many forms of media and computer applications. I do not want her to think that these things come from a dream factory, somewhere in the sky. Sure, she may not turn out an animator or a programmer, but she needs to have an appreciation for these things. It will help her understand her world better.

What I write about computer programming applies to other fields of problem solving, such as engineering and mathematics. Programming, as a discipline and as a way of thinking, opens the door to some of these professions which, even in the 21st century, are not considered by many graduates of girls' schools. Here's another dialog I have overheard, this time between two students in year 10:

Carla: "I would like to do engineering but I'm not sure."
Alexandra: "That's cool. My cousin is studying electrical engineering. He likes his course a lot."
Carla: "Yeah, these things are easier for boys."

If our girls see the computer as a black box and the software on it as the result of magic weaved by boys, then they are unlikely to participate fully in their world. Their education, work and leisure will be dictated by those male magicians whose products our girls consume.

I would love to hear what people out there think. Please leave a comment. I may sound strident but I won't be offended by disagreements.

5 comments:

Sofe

said...

Girls will work out how to do anything if it's important enough to them. Boys perhaps learn how to do it for the sake of doing it. How do we make computer programming more meaningful for girls?

Rambling Teacher

said...

You're right, Sophie. We need to convince them that there is a good reason to learn programming. Of late, a number of environments have been developed to teach school kids programming. They tend to enable students to animate stories as well as make games. In the majority of cases, girls choose the former while boys go for the latter.
A promising project that was dropped was "Story Telling Alice". Alice itself continues (see alice.org). An academic at Swinburne, Catherine Lang, was taking it into schools under the banner "Digital Divas". She is now turning her attention to AppInventor, a Google-MIT Media Lab collaboration designed to resemble Scratch and to allow kids to make Android Apps. I am hoping our school can be part of this new program and will be going for a PD later this month.

Peach

said...

I have to say I found this profoundly depressing.

I know that not all girls are going to be interested in programming, that's fine - but what really bothers me is the idea that it's a boys thing.

Your discussion with Samantha made me think of years ago when women actually believed being a doctor or a pilot was a job only a man could do.

On the flip side, most people I've met get into coding because they have an interest in it on their own, it's natural and a part of them - and in the same way no one could ever make me passionate about doing laundry, manicures or dress making, I expect that trying to ignite some kind of nonexistent enthusiasm might not be sustainable long, (or even medium,) term.

I wish I had something of value to offer to the discussion but I don't - I'm just rambling.

Rambling Teacher

said...

Thanks for the comment, Peach. Sophie, one way to get girls to value coding is to show them Peach's website, Techority.com
Peach is a self-taught programmer who has several APPs on the App Store. In a Skype appearance with the App Group, she encouraged the girls to learn to make Apps as it was a good way of generating income. This would have to be as good an incentive as any for many students contemplating funding themselves beyond school.

AMA

said...

Girls not learning programming? It isn't against the law is it?