Saturday, April 14, 2012

Getting Girls Excited About Computer Science Education

The following is a guest post from Erin Palmer, a contributor to U.S. News University Directory a leading resource for computer science bachelor degrees, certification courses and online STEM education programs from accredited colleges.

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Ground is actually being lost in the battle to get girls interested in computer science. The “boys club” nature of the field has continued into the 21st Century, despite attempts to reverse the trend.

Women received only 12% of undergraduate degrees in computer science and engineering from Ph.D.-granting institutions in Canada and the United States in 2006-07, according to a report from the Computing Research Association. That’s down from 19% in 2001-02.

This trend robs women of careers in fast-growing, high-paying fields, and it robs the computer science industry of the diversity of ideas and innovation needed for significant breakthroughs. To reverse course, we need to get girls interested in computers early on – even preschool isn’t too soon to start!

Why Aren’t Girls Excited about Computer Science?
The way schools are packaging computer science education may be the real culprit. Girls have the ability for computer science, but their attitude toward the field has been distorted by the “geek culture” that surrounds all things computer science.

The atmosphere in computer education – from the geeky décor of the classroom to the domination of boys in classroom discussions and the lack of women mentors – can be off-putting to many girls. It’s no surprise some girls see computers as boy toys used for video games.

Perhaps we need to do a better job of showing girls what computers can do for them.

Promoting Computer Science through All Education Levels
At the preschool and elementary levels, access is key. Teachers should ensure girls get equal opportunity to play around with computers. This can allow girls not only the chance to become comfortable using computers, but also foster a sense of accomplishment.

Some little boys tend to be more aggressive and enthusiastic about using computers than girls, pushing past them to claim the nearest or newest machine. In a chaotic computer lab, girls shouldn’t be left out of the action, relegated to the role of observer.

When girls hit middle school, peer pressure can be a destructive force and making computers the cool thing for girls can prove difficult. Educators can try to pioneer new ways to get girls involved by making computer science social, collaborative, empowering and fun. Adolescence is also when girls’ self-confidence levels can plummet, so we need to find new ways to make girls feel comfortable in their own skin.

High school is often when girls start making the decisions that will impact the rest of their professional lives. It’s important to strongly encourage them to continue taking higher level math, science and computer classes, going beyond what is required for college admission.

One of the best ways to make that case is to expose girls to successful women who work in a wide range of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. Never underestimate the power of role models like you!

Tips for Making Computer Science Appealing to Girls
Put the social in media: Many girls enjoy working together, and girl-only computer clubs can provide a fun, safe environment for them to explore and collaborate without worrying about what the boys think. Similarly, making connections and working with older female STEM professionals can go a long way in making computer science careers accessible to young women.

Access that appeals: Crippling budget cuts in education can make it difficult to get students in front of adequate technology. Once teachers have secured that face-time for girls, we have to make it compelling. Many girls aren’t as likely as boys to enjoy just messing around with computers. They want to achieve something. Let them choose the games and applications that appeal to them, and don’t be surprised when they treat computers more like tools than toys.

Encourage active exploration: We’ve all heard the jokes about which gender is more likely to ask for directions, but girls’ ability to ask for help isn’t always a positive. Sometimes they need to puzzle out a problem on their own. As a woman in the science and engineering professions, you know how integral that skill is to success. We need to push girls to take leadership roles, answer the tough questions and find solutions on their own.

As women, we know how tough it is to be a girl, but we also know that if we challenge them, many will rise to meet that challenge. If girls aren’t excited about computer science education, we need to improve the quality of that education. Of course there is more diversity within a gender than between them, but in general, girls learn differently than boys and different aspects of computing appeal to them. By being aware of those differences, we can tailor computer science education to appeal to girls thereby mentoring the future of our industry.