Wednesday, February 17, 2016

I am joining again with other bloggers in 28 Days of STEM. The topic of this week is teaching kids to code, and I want to focus specifically about coding for girls - how to get started in teaching girls to code.
Teaching girls to code

Do Girls and Boys Learn to Code Differently?

Oh, the famous gender debate! In my post on computer science for elementary school, I got an email from an angry reader saying that I am "perpetuating" gender stereotypes claiming that boys and girls approach programming differently. I was reminded of such pioneers of computer programming as Ada Lovelace or Grace Hopper and was told that perceived gap between boys and girls is cultural and not biological. 
I agree with some of her points. In my own country of birth, former Soviet Union, there was significantly less gender bias when it came to computer science and programming. In fact, in my graduating class of system engineering we had about 50-50 split between genders while all the other majors of our Radioengineering University had more 80-20 ratio between men and women and some had barely any women. When I came here and found my first job as a software engineer, I always was in significant minority in this male dominated field with my female colleagues having an interesting resemblance to me - first generation immigrants from China, India, and Russia. So where did we lose the girls? Perhaps exactly because we assume that they approach programming and computer science the same!

What's So Different Between Boys and Girls?

I want to make a usual disclaimer that all of us are on the spectrum of abilities, interests, and learning styles, but, in general, boys are more likely to be kinesthetic hands-on learners who are intensely interested in how computers actually work. Smarty's best friend will be happy to talk your ear off explaining CPU, memory or hard drive. Smarty could not care less about these things despite my husband's valiant attempts to get her interested. She is not much into breaking things apart to see how they work, and so she was never interested in opening up an old computer and investigating it. Still, I do highly recommend this activity both for boys and girls to make computers less "mysterious" to them.
Another interesting difference that I observed from Smarty and remember myself from my own early experience in computer science (unlike Smarty, I was already in high school) is that boys who are interested in programming are usually jump off a deep end into a complex project close to their heart and try to learn to swim that way. When Smarty first tried computer programming, she quickly found her lack of skills disconcerting and stepped back from it for a while. She has found her groove again a few months later when she was introduced to a simpler programming language of Scratch. What she loved about Scratch is a wild variety of examples where she could see how others created their programs and ability to tinker with other people's code. This is another difference that I observed - Smarty is intrigued by social aspects of modern computer science - ability to share the code and interact with others online rather than creating her own software masterpieces.

How to Get Started?

Get Off the Computer

Again, I would warn again starting on formal programming language too early unless your girl is passionate about wanting to try it out. In the hindsight, 8 or 9 is a better age than 6 when Smarty first started to learn how to code. But even younger kids might enjoy board games that introduce foundations of logic needed for computer science. I heard some good words about Robot Turtles, and Smarty really liked Code Master (see our review here). Also check out great DIY game that teaches kids to program a LEGO maze from Research Parent. 

Try an Hour of Code is an organization behind the Hour of Code initiative. Code'org isa non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science. Smarty's school did an Hour of Code this year, and somehow this one hour at school resurrected Smarty's interest in programming and led her to master both Java Script and HTML tutorials at Khan Academy. landing page is well organized and provides many different tutorial links - from Minecraft to JavaScript - perhaps one of them will speak to your girl.

Learn Coding Together

One thing that was a bit detrimental to Smarty's desire to program was that both of us are a bit "too good" in this field. She is intimidated to ask for help, because I have this tendency to take over, and my husband goes too deep in his efforts to explain programming concepts to her. If you have never tried coding, perhaps you can learn it with your girl through one of this tutorials or, even better, have her teach you and feel her sense of competency grow as she creates her own code and is able to explain what she is doing to you.

Do Not Push

Motivation is born out of autonomy. True coders are born out of their own passion to code, not because someone tells them to. Some of my most treasured college memories is an "overnight club" that I had with several other students also interested in programming. We still had mainframes with terminals, and computer labs during the day were full, so we asked for permission to come to the college at night to use a computer lab. We did not do it for grades, we did it because of our passion to try something new. Best coders are born out of this passion, and this passion does not have genders. Give your girl opportunities and step back. Who knows? Maybe she will be the one leading the next digital revolution a few years from now.

Your Turn

Have your girls tried computer programming yet? How old were they when they started?
Teaching Girls to Code - Getting Started

More Posts About Computer-Based Learning

From my blog:

28 Days of STEM

We are participating in the 28 Days of Hands-On STEM activities for kids! Check out its homepage to see a list of all the great STEM activities you can look forward to this month.

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JL said...

"When I came here and found my first job as a software engineer, I always was in significant minority in this male dominated field with my female colleagues having an interesting resemblance to me - first generation immigrants from China, India, and Russia. So where did we lose the girls? Perhaps exactly because we assume that they approach programming and computer science the same!"

So do they approach computer science differently for girls in Russia?

Ticia said...

We've done some of the hour of code stuff, but after a brief super interest, all of my kids lost interest there. I need to add it to their laptop as a site they can try.

Katie said...

I'm a computer programmer. I 100% agree with you that generally (though not always and not for every instance) there is a difference between the way boys and girls, and men and women, approach programming. A graduate of my undergrad alma mater did her thesis on women's approach to coding versus men. In her opinion in the general case men code more with an eye toward proving their domination. Obviously there are exceptions, but it fits my experience. I code to create. I know there are men who do this also - there's a prolific programmer/author who has written about the creative overlap between code and writing who is also a man.

My oldest girl (of 3) is a preschooler, but we just got to play with a Kibo robot recently. It's a robot which kids can code by arranging blocks with different commands on them in a line, scanning the bar codes on each block, and then pressing the button to see the robot act out the commands. My preschool daughter loved telling the robot to shake, sing, turn a lightbulb on and off, and move. She did a great job. Kibo included the concept of looping and of conditionals. I loved that my kid was getting logic and sequencing experience without even needing screen time. Great stuff. We really want Kibo for our home!