TECH.girl: Closing the ‘Interest Gap’
By Timothy Bazin, Secondary Social Studies teacher
Engineering is really the skill set to build anything you dream up in your head, whether it’s a website or a mobile app, to a bridge, to a highway, anything. That’s what engineers build. And what an amazing skill set. How empowering to be able to build whatever you want. But the problem was I felt kind of alone. I was always one of a handful of girls in my classes, and I did not fit in.
– Debbie Sterling, 3 March 2016
How do we inspire the next generation of female technologists? It’s a question that has sparked a worldwide effort to re-think how technology is taught in schools. Most schools fall into the mistake of thinking that the problem lies in the standards and curriculum taught, but this isn’t really the issue. Based off the speed and trajectory of technological change, I’d say it’s fair for teachers to admit that any world-wide standard for coding or robotics will be outdated by the time our kids hit the job market. Both boys and girls are probably being prepared for a future that no one can predict. The problem is not that boys are comparatively more able than girls to succeed in technology-related fields. The disconnect seems to be the difference in degree of interest that girls and boys show in technology-related courses and extracurricular activities once they reach Grade 9.
What does our school’s enrollment data suggest about student interest pertaining to technology fields? Full disclosure: I currently teach the Robotics ASAA and supervise the Engineering Mission & Service group. For me, it’s a sobering acknowledgement that after two semesters of running both activities, we were unable to recruit a single girl from the middle school (Grades 6-8) and high school (Grades 9 – 12). Moreover, zero of seven eligible girls from Grade 9 enrolled in IGCSE Computer Science this year. Of the high school’s thirty-seven eligible girls, only ten girls elected to take a course in Computer Science (and 8 of them are Grade 10 students). Despite three years of mandatory Technology classes from Grade 6 to Grade 8, we need to do more as a school to help girls become interested in technology.
I don’t have a definitive answer to how we get girls more interested in technology or as to why the Grade 10 girls are such an outlier, but I think that our school should make the increased involvement of girls in technology-based ASAAs, classes, and Mission & Service groups as one indicator of school-wide success.
So, what does the research suggest about possible interventions? First, we can designate on-campus locations for middle school and high school makerspaces (Williams et al., 2012) during the ASAA time. These are places on campus where kids can tinker. It’s important that girls’ input is taken into account before selecting the design and instruments available in these spaces. Second, we can teach basic programming skills through play-based instruction with Lego MINDSTORMS® kits starting in Grade 5 (Ortiz, 2011). We have ten Lego MINDSTORMS® kits at the V-9 campus and only presently use two; eight kits are available for a Primary teacher that wants to launch a girl-only ASAA. Third, we can provide professional development to middle school technology teachers on how to differentiate play-based instruction for boys and girls (Sousa, 2011). Lastly, we can adjust middle school learning standards to require the acquisition of elementary Python programming skills by completion of Grade 8 (à la Carnegie Learning’s Zulama standard).
The International School of Riga has the resources, both labor and capital, to incentivize and stimulate girls’ interests in technology now. What we need is a school-wide effort to close the interest gap between boys and girls so that we are adequately preparing all of our students for the jobs of the future in coding, robotics, cyber security, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.