Code.org’s Hadi Partovi recently wrote a blog post titled “The real reason there aren’t more women in tech.” He listed three reasons:
Computer science is not taught in US schools;
As an elective, it doesn’t contribute to graduation requirement;
The nerd stereotype is proven to drive away women.
While I agree with his assertions, I believe that there is another systemic and underlying factor at play. Students harbor a narrow and misguided view of what CS as a discipline and career entails. This is not so much a “stereotype” as sheer lack of awareness.
Remember Code.org’s “What Most Schools Don’t Teach” video? Vanessa Hurst’s words at the 4m09s mark strike at the heart of this issue, one that remains largely ignored and unaddressed in this huge push to take CS to schools and make it an attractive career choice especially for girls: “I think if someone had told me that software is really about humanity, that it's really about helping people by using computer technology it would have changed my outlook a lot earlier.”
Computer science has a fundamental image problem
Imagine being a kid and believing that jobs in a certain career mostly involved studying and/or repairing a complex machine. Would the average girl, or even boy for that matter, with such beliefs (or with no notions whatsoever about what being in that field really means) wish to pursue such a career?
Here’s news for all: Even today, most children between the ages of 11 and 18 either have no idea about CS or overwhelmingly associate a computer scientist with “building,” “fixing,” “improving” or “studying” computers. While some add ‘programming’ to this list, most don’t see even that within the ambit of computer science.
Research also reports that students finishing high school have a difficult time seeing themselves as computer scientists since they do not have a clear understanding of what computer science is and what a computer scientist does. This is rather unfortunate in light Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius’ powerful study on the idea of “possible selves,” the type of self-knowledge that pertains to how individuals think about their potential and their future.
It’s plausible that students harboring ignorance, or worse, misconceptions of a field are likely to make poor educational choices and career decisions; and that the lack of interest and negative attitudes towards CS, especially among girls, is attributable to an inaccurate view of what one does with computer science. These popular beliefs likely impact girls’ choices more than boys’ as they preclude a view of CS as an engaging discipline with uses in social and creative domains. Children must be cognizant of the broad applicability of computer science in many diverse fields of human endeavor, including creative fields and altruistic careers that often appeal to females. This need has been stressed in research on the “technological imaginations” of girls and boys, and more recently in Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher's Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. The importance of attending to this aspect of K-12 CS education simply cannot be emphasized enough.
Simple ideas to remedy the situation
Part of my work revolves around studying these perceptions of CS and helping kids think beyond just the “computer” to real world contexts in which they can create and use powerful tools in service to society. As it turns out, simple illuminating examples of CS in action beyond obvious ones like Facebook and video games can go a long way. (Although most kids fail to associate even those with computer science.) Here are some video clips that I have used with success with 7th to 9th graders in week-long units in classrooms as well as short sessions at Stanford Splash:
Special effects in movies (Kelly Ward explaining her awesome work on simulating Rapunzel’s hair for the Disney movie ‘Tangled’);
Robotics (Boston Dynamics “Big Dog” video is a hit);
Saving people’s lives on the road (Sebastian Thrun’s moving TED Talk about Google’s Driverless Car touches a nerve);
Medical innovations (MIT’s “Making the Invisible Visible“ is simply captivating);
Art and e-textiles (Leah Buechley’s videos on her work while at MIT are as fascinating to boys as they are to girls);
Space exploration (there’s a fun video of the Mars Rover playing the Birthday tune to itself);
Artificial Intelligence applications (the video of IBM Watson crushing the humans at Jeopardy tickles kids no end);
Big Data in Presidential Politics (How Obama’s presidential campaign mined social networks in the 2012 election is an eyeopener).
All of these exemplify innovations in ways that kids find interesting and also demonstrate computing being used in a context most don’t usually associate with computer science. “Show and discuss” these fascinating real-world applications in addition to mundane ones like traffic signals, ATMs, digital imaging, and the Internet, and they begin to see CS in a new light.
Additionally, bite-sized videos of computer scientists describing applications in their day-to-day work (or bringing in people to chat with them) can make computer science all the more real. In addition to my list, there is also a playlist of videos created by CSTA for CSEdWeek in 2010 that are also great for this purpose.
Discussions around these videos also provide a rich opportunity to discuss CS topics like robotics, computer vision, simulation & modeling, data mining, AI, voice & gesture recognition, and computational science. Perhaps adding them to the “Hour of Code” and other toolkits that Code.org has created for K-12 teachers can help students better envision the wide range of real-world applications for computer science. Below are some comments from some of the female students after such “show and discuss” sessions:
“I have never seen anything like it before and it allows you to be as creative as you want… Some of the most interesting computer science videos I've seen I think, And I now really want to learn more about coding and what I can do with it. ”
“When I thought of computer science before the video I think of computers and only about computers. But now I see that computer science goes so much further than that. Now I can't think of anything that doesn't use computer science. It's really cool”
“It was a fun way to combine programming with music and art to create some music. I learned how much CS can be used to create something for fun, not just work -- for example, the Beat Table, and Evelyn's line program.”
“That is so cool! >< I wish they would just sell the program to doctors so they could put it in good use. It'll be good for monitoring newborns.”
“ I have always liked using computers and I like programming, and these show me that being a computer scientist is the type of job that I would love to do. I finally know what to do with my future.”
“I’m really very intrigued by coding. I did not know that’s how Minecraft or Facebook were done..I want to know how the Google car was programmed. I was really amazed, and I’m wondering whether there’ll ever be a time in my life when I’ll see driverless cars on the road, coz now everytime I see my mom in traffic or my dad, I say to myself, this is why we need Google cars!”
As the move to introduce computing to K-12 schools gains momentum, and amidst the many initiatives to increase interest in computing among girls currently underway, an important piece of this puzzle is to tackle students’ misconceptions of computing. We must make sure all children, especially girls, are aware of exemplary societal uses of CS as a creative and engaging discipline that is relevant and applicable to all walks of life. It’s crucial to broadening the women-in-tech pipeline and all associated learning trajectories.