Girls and Computers

There were fewer American degrees in Computer Science and Information Science conferred on females in 2003 than there were twenty years earlier. Isn’t that a mind-blowing fact? The US Department of Education shows that after steady gains from 1973 to 1984, the rate declined to about 1992 (when I got my degree) and has stayed roughly flat since then. Currently only about a quarter of computer-related bachelor degrees are conferred on women, and that number is assumed to be artificially high since more women enroll in Information Science than Computer Science.

As early as the 1980’s, researcher J. Cooper found that attitudes towards computers were already markedly different in girls and boys in kindergarten. Later research showed that computer learning programs tended to be written in ways that appeal more often to boys than girls, reinforcing the anxiety that girls feel around using computers at school.

An interesting article by the Chronicle for Higher Education quotes a researcher as saying “Men are generally interested in computers as tools and objects of study… women are more interested in what computers can do for science, the arts, or society.” This is something I’ve often noted in my friends and colleagues; there are exceptions, of course, but the men have a tendency to view a computer as an end in itself; the women have more of a tendency to see it as a tool to get other interesting things done.

Fortunately the Ontario Curriculum views Computer Studies as far more than just straight programming. As a computer studies secondary teacher, I must cover a balanced curriculum and incorporate resources to counteract these alarming gender trends.

At IBM I was involved with both the K-12 and Women In Technology (WIT) initiatives. I taught the “Be A Programmer” segment of EXITE camp and volunteered as an e-mentor in IBM’s MentorPlace, mentoring girls in grade 6 who had attended the camp. IBM Canada’s K-12 website includes a Teacher’s Lounge with links not only to websites of interest, but a newsletter and actual lesson plans sorted by grade. Their Issues in Education section is where I learned, for instance, about the Durham District School Board’s excellent results from integrating IT into classrooms. A Lesson Plans section contains an excellent plan that asks students at various levels to use the Internet to research post-secondary education, and another to research jobs. These neatly dovetail with our curriculum expectations to determine the computer expertise needed for engineering and technology careers, and also to identify post-secondary opportunities.

The site GirlsTech presents a research-based framework for evaluating all kinds of electronic resources. Their framework will help me to ensure that electronic resources chosen to use in the classroom and after-school clubs will encourage and increase young women’s interest and participation in the sciences and technology.

GirlsTech led me, for instance, to the both hilarious and useful Furby Autopsy site. Owners of a malfunctioning Furby did an autopsy, carefully detailing what they found inside. The results are quite technical, suitable for use in a Computer Engineering class from grade 10 up. This site could be used at a superficial level to satisfy curriculum expectations around the parts of a computer (CPU, RAM, etc). It could also be used in higher grades to satisfy the expectation to “verify the correctness of the input and output of a system consisting of a computer, interface, and a hardware device”; the Furby contains a computer (however small), interfaces (touch, auditory, and photocell sensors), and is itself a hardware device. Any doll or toy with input sensors would work. A culminating activity that has groups of grade 12 students dissect, report on, and re-assemble a childhood toy with new or modified capabilities has the potential to be the kind of iconic school project that every student looks forward to. What better way to symbolize the end of high school than reprogramming your old Chatty Cathy doll to say “I love computers!” and type on a keyboard?

Works Cited
Cooper, J. (2006). The digital divide: The special case of gender. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

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