Here are key steps to take to get more girls in computer science learning.

6 strategies to engage girls in computer science


U.S. innovation depends on getting more girls in computer science classes and careers--here's how to encourage more participation

Based on those surveys and observations, the school identified six strategies to help educators encourage more girls in computer science pursuits.

1. Provide positive role models

“When it comes to recruiting women into computer science, whether a role model projects the current stereotypes of the field may be more important than whether that role model is female or male,” Kiang said. “Role models can be successful if they elicit a sense of belonging.”

That sense of belonging is important, Kiang added, because often, specialized communities can be exclusionary. Including more girls and minorities in computer science means ensuring they feel like they fit in–and role models can play a pivotal role in doing just that.

Kiang said his students greatly enjoyed hearing from guest speakers, and other educators seeking to inspire their students could bring in alumni who can speak to students about what it’s like to code for a living.

Madewithcode.com is another resource that offers short videos featuring female computer scientists with exciting computer science careers.

2. Share student success

Kiang’s school brings back some students as course assistants, and those former students will talk about persistence and even create videos with tips and advice to help current students navigate assignments and new topics.

3. Create more adult advocates

“This makes a huge difference,” Kiang said. “Computer science is a tough course. It isn’t necessarily like a math course where you learn formulas and do problems that emphasize those skills. Lots of computer science involves figuring things out on your own and solving puzzles.”

Research has shown, Kiang added, that having adults in the community who encourage girls in computer science learning, has a positive impact on their willingness to persist in the computer science environment.

As Apple’s Tim Cook said, women are an important part of the workforce, and if STEM-related fields continue their low representation of women, there won’t be enough innovation in the U.S.

Some of the deterrents came from inside Kiang’s school, he said. He realized some girls were being pointed toward other courses, being told that computer science was “really challenging,” and that they should try a different class.

Unconscious bias plays a part. Giving everyone the same opportunity doesn’t necessarily get more girls in computer science classes–an extra nudge can help. Boys tend not to need such extra encouragement because they’re encouraged all the time. Being aware of unconscious bias and using tools to address it is an important step.

4. Promote context over tools

When Kiang’s school changed the way it described its computer science classes, from full of jargon and very technical-sounding to more matter-of-fact and basic, course enrollment tripled.

“We reworked our Intro to Java description from super-technical and jargony to talking about problem solving and building websites. Just the context makes such a difference,” he said.

5. Build community

Research suggests girls are motivated by social interaction or helping others.

“If you build projects into your classroom to actually help people, that’s where you can get lots more interest. This creates experiences for learners to make positive socially responsible contributions,” Kiang said.

Students can do what Kiang calls “paired programming” and work together on a challenge, or they can give “work in progress” reports, during which the class gathers around each student’s computer to see where the student is in a particular task and hear the student share a bit about what they’ve learned.

“Kids will solve different problems in their coding, and when you spotlight each student in turn, they’ll remember each other’s strengths. They’ll start to go to each other to ask questions, instead of going to you as the teacher,” he added.

Kiang’s class also completes independent projects for which students receive mentoring from community members such as college students, school IT staff, parents, and alumni. The projects help students learn, how to get “unstuck” when they’re stuck, and also serves as an early warning system for student progress.

6. Foster a growth mindset

“Creating a growth mindset is super important,” Kiang said. “One study found that students’ interpretations were influenced by experiences in their environments and beliefs about their ability as being fixed or malleable. Students who believe ability is fixed think they either can code or can’t. That’s not true.”

Convincing girls that they can, in fact, persist and learn is paramount to their success.

“This belief had a huge impact on girls’ decisions to continue with computer science,” Kiang said. “Computer science involves lots of failure, repeatedly. It’s important for girls to believe they can get better.”

One strategy Kiang employs to convince students, and girls in particular, that they CAN solve programming problems is what he calls Rubber Duck Debugging.

At the beginning of every year, each student receives a rubber duck. Students place their duck on their table if they’re stuck, and they talk through their problem out loud with the duck.

“As they talk out loud and explain, they figure out what they’ve done wrong. Duck is a good listening–duck doesn’t judge,” Kiang said. “It helps with metacognition, and that can greatly help with debugging. Teaching students these strategies teaches them that coding isn’t a fixed ability–they can get better. It’s important that kids learn how to be their own debuggers.”

Next steps to get more girls in computer science classes

The school’s efforts paid off–updated course descriptions and posters and videos promoting female programmers increased participation in computer science courses.

While the number of girls enrolling in computer science at the Punahou School is higher than at any point in the past, the percentage of female enrollment has stayed flat, because efforts to involve more girls in computer science also attracted more students overall to the courses.

“A lot of those negative stereotypes have turned off not just young women, but young men as well,” Kiang said. “We’re going to continue our strategies and see what happens.”

Laura Ascione

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