CS and Gender: A multi-year project
Near the end of school, I was approached by a former student of mine named Carissa. Carissa is awesome. She was in a coding enrichment class that I taught during her 8th grade year. She was also really active in a girls’ robotics team at our school and went on to join the FIRST robotics program at her high school. She gushed about how great the robotics program and how much she learned. Not just coding, but mechanical engineering and soldering. She said her team was great although she was one of two girls on it. Carissa was starting work on a Girl Scout Gold Project, a multi-year project that would be a big capstone on her Girl Scout experience. She wanted to focus on getting more girls involved in STEM and wanted to collaborate with me on it.
Carissa’s reaching out to me was really timely, as I was just finishing my first year as a computer science teacher and was starting to ponder my next move in this push for closing the gender gap.
My class schedule consists of three sections of sixth-grade computer tech (it’s called Web 2.0 and has a computer science part to its curriculum), and elective CS and Electronics classes for my 7th and 8th graders. Those elective classes are where I’m choosing to measure impact on the access for girls. In first semester, I started off with a full set of rosters, three full classes, and a grand total of three girls. I went to the counseling office and looked through schedules one-by-one with the 8th grade counselor, and hand-scheduled a total of 11 girls in computer science and 7 in electronics. Five of the girls dropped computer science, but all of the electronics girls stayed.
Second semester, the story was very similar. Started with rosters almost devoid of girls. Went to the counseling office and hand-scheduled some. Lost a few of those.
So there it is. In sixth grade, half the students in computer technology classes are female, because the class is required. The first year that the class is optional, female enrollment drops below 20%, and from there the pipeline gets leakier.
Early when I took the computer science education position, I worked with my principal to brainstorm some strategies for increasing female participation in CS and Electronics down the road. One area in which I have great control is in the sixth-grade Web 2.0 classroom. I see every sixth-grader in the building for a quarter, and I teach units on computer programming, social media safety, online research, and keyboarding. I used resources from the National Center for Women in Information Technology to inform what I needed to do in Web 2.0. Here’s what I changed:
* I decided to teach the computer programming unit using Scratch to introduce coding structures.
* I taught using collaborative activities where students could create and troubleshoot code in partners and small groups.
* I introduced a creative final project in which students could create anything they wanted, working with or without a partner.
* I used a pair programming protocol for partner activities, so students could learn computing in a social, cooperative way.
Our hypothesis is that these changes will result in an increase of diversity in CS and Electronics classes later. I gave a survey to 84 of my students at the end of the last quarter to get a sneak peek at whether the hypothesis is true. Based on the results, I don’t think these changes are enough to really effect a change in the female enrollment.
First, the good news. Students found these activities in Web 2.0 interesting and useful.
The breakdown for boys and girls. Boys enjoyed the Scratch unit more. Girls enjoyed keyboarding and social media more.
I asked students whether they signed up for Computer Science or Electronics next year. Here are the responses from the whole group, and then broken down by gender.
Not super promising as only 20 of the 84 students expressed interest in signing up. Here is it broken down by gender.
39% of the boys expressed interest in signing up for an elective next year vs. only 5% of the girls. It’s also informative in that there are an awful lot of boys we’re not reaching as well, but the lack of interest is very pronounced in girls. This was so disappointing because I made a tremendous effort to have a fun, engaging, collaborative programming unit.
I asked the students why they were not interested in signing up for a class next year. Their responses, broken down by gender. Students could select more than one choice.
The boys’ responses were very spread out, whereas the girls’ responses were concentrated on three of them: No room in the schedule, not interesting, and not fun. These were also the most popular responses for the boys – just not in such high percentages.
Looking at the results, I’m drawing a couple of conclusions about next year.
– I suspect I am going to end up walking into the counseling office and hand-scheduling a bunch of girls in my classes again to correct the gender imbalance. It will not have fixed itself.
– Girls generally said they enjoyed Web 2.0, but a majority did not say the Scratch topics were the most useful or enjoyable for them. It could be that the changes I made – collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving – are necessary but not sufficient to really change girls’ attitudes about computer science. Girls still see it as “not interesting” and “not fun” and not something they want to prioritize in their schedule.
– For that matter, a majority of boys don’t see CS as something they want to prioritize in their schedule. Any program geared toward bringing more girls into CS perhaps should look at drawing in these boys who have potential but not the interest right now. What’s holding them back?
– I have to attack this problem differently. But how?
Going back to my meeting with Carissa, I’ve been reading more articles and research about what successful programs have done. In places where they’ve measurably made CS programs more diverse, the problem has been attacked in more ways than just restructuring the classroom.
* The University of Washington made important changes to the curriculum, but is also really focused on outreach, marketing, and retention efforts. They have a full K-12 outreach program including camps, lunches, and competitions. I have to think these programs are beneficial for the undergraduates as well as the K-12 students. What a way to give a sense of purpose!
* Harvey Mudd College has had well-known success increasing the proportion of CS majors that are women. Their approach included restructuring the introductory classes and intensive mentoring of their women CS students including research opportunities and conferences.
* Carnegie Mellon University increased its female participation in CS from 8% to 42% by 2000 by working on a multi-pronged approach affecting the classroom and the culture.
* The New York Times posted this fascinating article about a program at the University of California at Berkeley. When students were offered the chance to enroll in an engineering program focused on solving problems in the developing world, half the enrollees were female in the very first year it was offered. This rings true with another article I read about female attitudes toward CS, this one from the group at Carnegie Mellon involving their work. Males tend to enjoy computing just for the sake of computing: the computer is a toy and a joyful experience in itself. Females tend to enjoy computing as a means to get something done. It’s a problem-solving tool to help with projects that have a larger purpose.
There are a lot of pieces implied here. I think my approach to really improving the gender imbalance has to involve:
– Meaningful projects for middle-schoolers that involve learning CS not as the main purpose, but as a means to an end.
– Mentoring. Bringing older students back to talk to, and work with, the younger students. Involving my middle-schoolers in work with even younger kids.
– Publicity. Normalizing computer science as part of what we do to solve problems. Involving other content-area teachers in using coding as a classroom tool. Posters. Videos. Brown-bag lunches, teleconferences, career speakers. Demonstrations and testimonials.
These parts of my job need to start taking equal importance with classroom instruction and the technical skills I’m teaching – because they’re so important for a student creating her self-image as a problem-solver in the world around her.
And this is probably where I can get great support from my buddy Carissa for her project. We have some planning to do for next year, and data collection!