It was time to begin teaching my class. The children were in their seats, laptops turned on, ready to begin. I scanned the doorway, hoping for one more girl to arrive: there were nine boys in my class and just two girls. I was conducting free coding classes, but young girls were still reluctant to attend. As a 15-year-old computer enthusiast, I was baffled by this lack of interest.
A young boy arrived with his mother. As the mother was preparing to leave, I asked her, "If you have the time, why don't you stay? Maybe you could help your son." She agreed. I started my class without further delay. In the next class, the boy's mother brought along a friend and her daughter. Subsequent classes saw the registration of a few more girls, friends of friends. My message was getting across: computer science (CS) is not as difficult as presumedit is fun, and more importantly, it is certainly not an exclusively male-oriented domain.
Being enamored by CS myself, I was disappointed to find girls shunned this super-exciting, super-useful, and super-pervasive discipline. I was determined to find out why, and as I started teaching Java to middle school children I kept a close watch on how the questions, understanding, reactions, and study methods of girls differed from the boys in class. The difference I noticed immediately was the boys were more advanced in their knowledge. It was a challenge for me to balance the boys and the girls not only in teaching but also in their learning perspectives. I noted that while the boys accepted concepts unquestioningly and focused on applicationthe 'How' of thingsthe girls always wanted to know 'Why?' So I asked the boys to explain the 'why' of things to the girls. The boys soon learned they did not know it all, so attempted a deeper understanding and in the process the girls got their answers. By the time the session was over, both boys and girls were equivalent in knowledge and confidence, and were keen to collaborate in writing apps.
But why was there so much disparity at the start? After a brief round of questioning, I realized the boys had a head start because they had started youngjust like I had. Young boys are more attracted to computer games and gadgets than young girls. As I have an older brother, I had been exposed to computer games and programming as a small child. But what about girls with no brothers? Girls are not aware of the fun element in controlling computers most often because they have not had the opportunity to try it.
The essential difference between the genders in the interest and knowledge in computer science stems from exposure (or the lack thereof) at a young age. If one goes to a store to buy PlayStation, Nintendo, or Xbox games, the gender imbalance is apparent. Except for a few Barbie games, there are practically no games with young girls as protagonists. There have been a few attempts to create stimulating games geared only for girls. In 1995, Brenda Laurel started her company Purple Moon to make video games that focused particularly on girls' areas of interest while retaining the action and challenge mode. Despite extensive research on the interests and inclinations of girls, Purple Moon failed.4 Today, the Internet has games for young girls but most are based on cultural biases like dressing up, cooking, nail art, fashion designing, and shopping. Exciting and challenging video games continue to be male oriented, which makes the initiation into computer science easier and earlier for boys. Once hooked on these games, curiosity and the wish to engineer desired results take the boys into the world of programming. And that is the bit that starts the coder's journey.
It is a journey whose momentum can be picked up by girls, too. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says, "Encourage your daughters to play video games." She claims, "A lot of kids code because they play games. Give your daughters computer games." In a gaming world thirsting for young girls' games, there are some invigorating splashes, like the wonderfully created game Child of Light.5 This role-playing game not only has a little girl as the central character but most of its other characters (both good and bad) are women, too. It is this kind of game the world needs to entice girls into the world of computer sciencea world where women can have fun, create, and lead. The lead programmer of Child of Light, Brie Code says, "It can be lonely to be the only woman or one of very few women on the team ... it is worth pushing for more diversity within the industry."
Computer games for the very young have a vital role to play in ushering in diversity within the industry. Fred Rogers, the American icon for children's entertainment and education, rightly said, "For children, play is serious learning." I learned the program LOGO when I was just four years old because it was only a game to meI was not programming, I was having fun. To be able to control the movements of the LOGO turtle was thrilling. Today, when I code in Java to make complex apps I gratefully acknowledge the little LOGO turtle that started it all. That was 10 years ago. Today, more exciting programming languages like KIBO, Tynker, and ScratchJr, software like The Foos and apps like Kodable aim to make computer science fun for small children who have not yet learned to read! This is the level at which girls have to enter the field of CS, not hover around the boundaries at high school. In the 21st century, computer science is as much a part of fundamental literacy as reading, writing, and math.
Hence, I believe CS should be made mandatory in kindergarten and elementary school. President Obama has stressed the need for K12 computer science education to "make them job-ready on day one." Learning the basics determines choices for higher studies. Girls need a bite and taste in early childhood in order to make informed decisions about computer science when they are teenagers. I was not a teenager yet when I migrated from India to the U.S. My private school in India had CS as a compulsory subject from Grade 1 onward. So when I began attending school in the U.S., I knew I loved CS and it definitely had to be one of my electives. But the boys looked at us few girls in class as if we were aliens! Even today, in my AP computer science class, few boys ask me for a solution if they have a problem (I kid myself that it is because of my age and not gender). In India, it is cool for a girl to study computer science in school. I basked in virtual glory there, while in the U.S. I found most of my female friends raised their eyebrows, their eyes asking me, "Why would you want to study CS?"
So I decided to flip the question and conduct a survey to find out why they did not want to study computer science. I interviewed 107 girls from the ages of 5 to 17 in the U.S., U.K., and India. My question was: "Would you study computer science in college?" A whopping 82.4% of the girls said 'No' or 'Maybe'. When asked why not, 78% of them answered 'I am afraid that I am not smart enough to do CS.' Other answers included 'I am not a big fan of programming'/'I am not inclined toward the sciences, I am more creatively oriented'/'I prefer the literary field, writing, editing, publishing'/'I am too cool to be a geek'! When I asked whether they knew any programming language, only 14 girls out of the 107 said 'Yes.' Dismayed by the results, I posed the same question to 50 boys, in the same age group: 74.8% of them said 'Yes' to studying CS; 82% of all the boys I interviewed knew more than one programming language and many of them were less than 10 years old. My resolve was strengthened: the only way to remove the fear of CS from the minds of girls is to catch them young and encourage curiosity before negative attitudes are developed.
Once the worth of the field is realized, one notices the crop of roses and the thorns pale in comparison. One such thorn is the idea of geekiness that mars the face of computer science. Girls are unwilling to be nerds. The misconception that a computer nerd is a socially awkward eccentric has been obliterated by the stars in technology like Sheryl Sandberg, Sophie Wilson, Marissa Mayer, or the cool young female employees of Facebook, Google, and other companies and organizations.
It is just a matter of time before girls realize studying and working in CS is neither fearsome, nor boring.
Another (and a more piercing) thorn that keeps girls away from computer science is the lack of confidence in math and science. Intensive studies indicate spatial reasoning skills are deeply associated with mathematical and technical skills. Research also shows action and building games vastly improve spatial skills, math skills, divergent problem-solving skills, and even creativity. So why should these games be reserved only for boys? To develop spatial skills and attract girls into the tech field, Stanford engineers Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks created Roominate, a wired DIY dollhouse kit, where girls can build a house with building blocks and circuits, design and create rooms with walls, furniture, working fans, and lights.6 These kinds of toys can develop spatial perception and engender confidence in STEM fields in girls, too. "Playing an action video game can virtually eliminate gender difference in spatial attention and simultaneously decrease the gender disparity in mental rotation ability, a higher-level process in spatial cognition."2 The same study concludes, "After only 10 hours of training with an action video game, subjects realized substantial gains in both spatial attention and mental rotation, with women benefiting more than men. Control subjects who played a non-action game showed no improvement. Given that superior spatial skills are important in the mathematical and engineering sciences, these findings have practical implications for attracting men and women to these fields."
Inspired by studies like these, I started a project to make CS appealing to the feminine mind. Based on my 'Catch Them Young' philosophy, I am using my programming knowledge to create action and building games for tiny tots where the action is determined by the player. The player decides whether the little girl protagonist wants to build a castle or rescue a pup from evil wolves. There is not a single alphabet used in the games, so that even two-year-old children can play with ease and develop their spatial reasoning even before they learn the alphabet. Using LOGO, ScratchJr, and Alice, I have created a syllabus to enable an early understanding of logic and creation of a sequence of instructions, which is the basis of all programming. I am currently promoting this course in private elementary schools in the U.S., India, and other countries to expose the minds of young girls to computer science.
In a similar endeavor, schools in South Fayette Township (near Pittsburg, PA) have introduced coding, robotics, computer-aided design, 3D printing, and more, as part of the regular curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade to make computational reasoning an integral part of thinking.1 The problem-solving approach learned in the collaborative projects helps children apply computational thinking to the arts, humanities, and even English writing. Girls in these South Fayette schools are now computer whiz kids fixing computer bugs as well as malfunctioning hardware! They are clear proof that computational thinking is a strength not restricted to males alonegirls often combine it with creativity, designing, and literary skills for even more powerful effects. Recent studies show girls often go the extra length in creating more complex programs than boys. As Judith Good of the school of engineering and informatics at the University of Sussex commented after a workshop for boys and girls for creating computer games: "In our study, we found more girls created more scripts that were both more varied in terms of the range of actions they used, and more complex in terms of the computational constructs they contained."3
The change has begun and it is just a matter of time before girls realize studying and working in CS is neither fearsome, nor boring. The time to realize this truth can be further shortened if parents and teachers can also be inducted into the realm of CS. Adult computer education is essential for closing the gender gap in computer science. The role of parents and teachers is paramount in introducing curiosity and interest in young children, irrespective of gender, and steer them toward the magic of CS. The huge participation of Indian mothers in the CS stream in Bangalore is a powerful stimulus and one of the primary reasons behind young girls embracing this field so enthusiastically and successfully in India. When role models open up new vistas of the computer science world to all childrenincluding the very youngonly then can the unfounded fear of girls regarding this relatively new domain be replaced by curiosity, excitement, and a desire to participate. For computational thinking has no genderit just has magical power.
1. Berdik, C. Can coding make the classroom better? Slate 23 (Nov. 23, 2015); http://slate.me/1Sfwlwc.
2. Feng, J., Spence, I., and Pratt, J. Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychological Science 18, 10 (Oct. 2007), 850855; http://bit.ly/1pmG8Am.
3. Gray, R. Move over boys: Girls are better at creating computer games than their male friends. DailyMail.com (Dec. 2, 2014); http://dailym.ai/1FMtEN1.
4. Harmon, A. With the best research and intentions, a game maker fails. The New York Times (Mar. 22, 1999); http://nyti.ms/1V1hxEL.
6. Sugar, R. How failing a freshman year physics quiz helped 2 friends start a "Shark Tank" funded company. Business Insider 21 (Jul. 21, 2015); http://read.bi/1SknHep.
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