Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Preserving Girls' interest in Computer Science

My wife put together a great list of tips recently for educators asking for advice on incorporating computational thinking into their curriculum. I heartily agree with these thoughts:

  1. Appeal to a variety of interests by presenting a wide range of computer science applications. Provide lots of answers to the question "Why do I want to learn to program? What can I do with programming that I'm interested in?" Not all students may be motivated to make games. Help them find an application they are passionate about.
  2. Make the point that computer science isn't just relevant for "computer people". You can be a great programmer and love it without knowing everything about computers.  Also, programming skills are applicable to many careers, not just software engineer.
  3. Provide encouragement. There are a lot of forces pushing girls away from computer science. Help combat this by encouraging students. You may provide the crucial support a vulnerable individual needs to persist. 
  4. Recognize that there can be a tendency to attribute academic shortcomings to lacking intrinsic ability. If a student believes she is "failing" in a class (keep in mind this is in her eyes, which may be a B), she may conclude that she is not smart enough for the subject as a whole. Emphasize that other factors such as study skills (and sleep!) can have a huge impact on performance.
  5. Don't take lack of interest in a subject at face value. Perceived self-efficacy affects interest. A student may not be interested, in part, because the student does not feel confident. 
  6. When stress is too high, the ability to learn decreases. If a student is feeling insecure, incapable, or otherwise stressed, performance may decrease. Don't assume that low scores indicate lack of potential. 
  7. Feeling "out of place" can be very distracting. Instead of listening to the course material, a student may be focused on her minority status or how uncomfortable she feels (imagine trying to listen to a teacher with loud static in the background). The student may need a different environment, in which she feels comfortable, in order to focus. 
  8. Provide actual programming practice. Show that programming isn't mysterious or too complicated to comprehend. You don't need secret "computer knowledge" to succeed. Demonstrate what to do when you don't know the answer. 
  9. Understand the reasons that the pipeline is leaky. For one, staying in it is exhausting. If a student doesn't know why this is the case, she might be more likely to think it is just her and give up. It might take awareness of the factors involved and the deliberate decision to stay anyway.
  10. Encourage students not to rule out any careers due to expectations about difficulty achieving acceptable work-life-family balance. There are a lot of options out there. 
  11. Don't try to "weed students out". Instead, encourage students to sign up for another class. Students don't have to commit to a life of programming; just stay in computer science a little bit longer. 
  12. Have female teachers and role models. Show that you don't have to be the stereotype.