I am teaching "Creative Computer Exploration with Scratch" to 4th, 5th, and 6th graders from 8 am to 12 noon, and "Games Programming with Python and GASP" to 7th, 8th, and 9th graders from 12:30 to 4:30 pm. Each session runs two weeks, and there are two sessions during July, so we just completed our 3rd day of the second session.
I'm sure I'll be reflecting on my experiences with these classes for some time to come, particularly as they relate to the creation within Arlington Public Schools (APS) of a computer programming pathway -- a sequence of educational experiences for APS students beginning in elementary school and ending in programming careers in Industry. One of the reasons I'm so happy to be teaching these classes is that it gives me an opportunity to impact the early stages of the pathway, which until now I have not been able to touch.
What I want to focus on here, however, is one question, simple to state but elusive to answer: Where do all the geek girls go?
I've been a CS teacher for 13 years now, and I'm acutely aware of the assumption permeating my field that computer programming is a "boy thing". My typical class of 25 students over the years has had at most 2 or 3 girls in it. That has never varied from year to year, and I've seen no recent trend suggesting that it is changing. The attendees at the annual Python conference have a similar gender imbalance among participants, but there I have noticed concrete signs of improvement over the last few years, with more (albiet still very few) women programmers showing up each year.
Despite a keen interest in understanding the causes of this gender inequity and a strong desire to do whatever I can to address it, I have yet to figure out an effective approach. Teaching the Summer enrichment courses has given me new insights into the issue. Here is what I've observed:
- The number of "geek girls" in the Scratch class (11 of 30) is much higher than in the Python class (4 of 30), suggesting that the geek girls drop out somewhere between 5th grade and 7th grade.
- The girls in the Scratch class are true geeks in every sense of the word (and in case you haven't figure it out by now, I mean that as the utmost compliment): they have the same interest in problem solving and desire to make a computer do their bidding as their boy counterparts. They also have many of the same geek quirkinesses I've come to expect from the students with whom I work.
- The girls are awesome programmers. Here is a program that 4th grader Rachel made after three days of using Scratch. I would say the girls have been better programmers on average than the boys, in part because they seem more mature and have longer attention spans.
- I have noticed differences in the kinds of things the girls and boys want to work on, with boys more interested in games (with lots of bombs and blood and stuff), and the girls more interested in telling stories. No hard and fast rules here. Some of the girls made games with plenty of gore, and some of the boys made stories, but there were clear and noticible differences on average between what the boys and girls chose to do.
- The girls in the Scratch class seem to be having lots of fun. Several of them spent hours at home working on their projects and learning to use the XO computers we gave them to use during the class. While I didn't do a survey, the evidence that the girls found their work with Scratch and Sugar to be enjoyable and engaging was unmistakable.
- We haven't been doing Scratch for very long, so we may help open up new opportunities for geek girls by offering this early programming experience.
- Scratch lends itself to the kinds of projects the girls seemed to find interesting. It permitted them to use their programming logic to become story tellers. The Python class does not support this kind of problem solving very well at all, particularly the way I am presently teaching it, where the focus is on programming games. The Sugar project, which is developing Activities in Python for story telling, may provide help in this regard.
- We may have particular cultural expectations to overcome, which tell girls, even geek girls, that it is not cool to be involved in computer programming once they reach the middle school years. I've noticed that this cultural expectation does not seem nearly so pronounced in the immigrant and African American student populations with which I've worked, so it may just be historical baggage we have to overcome.
- A large part of the historical baggage keeping geek girls from pursuing their interests may just be a matter of unlocking the clubhouse door. I've seen instances of boys actively attempting to exclude girls and make them feel unwelcome throughout my years of teaching computer programming. It is certainly the case that part of the effort to include more girls in computer programming classes involves a good old fashioned battle against sexism.