Recently, MIT App Inventor featured a story about Pauline Lake, a Trinty College student in Connecticut who developed and runs an app invention class for high school students. Curious, I gave Pauline a call and we talked about her idea and how the class has run.
App Inventor is a set of tools and resources to write software applications (apps) for the Android phone. Google has given/shared the Android App Inventor with MIT so it is freely available for all to use. EdWeek has also profiled a couple of programs where young people learn to write apps.
But Pauline’s story struck me. Here was one young college student who wanted to do something to help other young people learn important skills. Pauline told me that she is pursuing two majors, education studies and computer science, and that she is the only one at her college doing that. She went on to talk about how she has shaped her course and the resources over several trials in local schools, learning what works best to engage high school students. She’s even taught students as young as 4th to 6th grade how to program apps. Although she’s won awards for her work (and met Michelle Obama at the White House), she worries that the programs won’t continue. However, she is working to spread the idea locally and with presentations at STEM conferences in her area.
But most of all what impressed me was her pride in her students and the changes that a simple programming class had brought to their lives. When you talk to Pauline, it is not difficult to see that creating engaging learning experiences in computer science for young people really matters.
“Students from elementary school through college are learning on laptops and have access to smartphone apps for virtually everything imaginable, but they are not learning the basic computer-related technology that makes all those gadgets work. Some organizations are partnering with universities to change that.”
THE Journal has run an important article about the efforts to overhaul Computer Science education in the U.S. (Overhauling Computer Science Education – Nov/Dec 2011.)
It’s long been a mystery to me that computer science isn’t being taught in U.S. schools. No, not computer literacy, which is also important, but often stops at the “how to use application x, y, or z” level. Why are we not teaching students how to program, master, and manage the most powerful aspects of the most important invention of the 20th and 21st century?
I believe there are two reasons, both based in fear.
1. Fear that adding a new “science” will take time away from “real” math and science. In my opinion, the US K-12 math and science curriculum has been frozen in time. It’s not relevant or real anymore, and needs a vast overhaul. But there are lots of forces at work to keep the status quo definitions of what kids are taught. And I do mean to draw a distinction between what students are taught and what they learn. For too many young people, what they learn is that math is boring, difficult, and not relevant, and science is about memorizing arcane terms. This is just a shame and waste.
2. Fear that computer science is too hard to teach in K-12. People worry that teachers are already stressed and stretched, that there aren’t enough computer science teachers, and that computer science is just something best left to colleges. That’s just a cop out. There are lots of teachers who learn to teach all kinds of difficult subjects – no one is born ready to teach chemistry or how to play the oboe, but people learn to do it all the time. Plus, there are computer languages and development tools for all ages, and lots of support on the web for people to try them out.
Please read this article – it covers a wide range of options and ideas for adding this very important subject to the lives of young people who deserve a relevant, modern education! Overhauling Computer Science Education
Professor Sapna Cheryan led her student into a small classroom in Stanford University’s computer science building. Star Wars posters adorned the walls, discarded computer parts and cans of Coke clustered on a table, and a life-size bust of Spock perched on the desk. “Sorry about the mess,” Cheryan said. “Just ignore that stuff, it’s not part of our study. Here’s your questionnaire. Let me know when you’re done.”
The student took a dubious look at her surroundings and raised her pencil to answer the question: “How interested are you in computer science?”
Cheryan, now a psychologist at the University of Washington, has placed students in situations like this for nearly five years. She has found that women rate themselves as less interested in computer science than men in the “geek room” described above. But in a room decorated more neutrally with art posters, nature photos, and water bottles, their interest levels were about the same.
A few years ago one of our GenYES advisors told me that he was very proud of the fact that his student tech support team was over 50% female. But it wasn’t always that way. He said that it took time and effort to change the culture of the team, but the thing that made the most difference was that he remodeled the “tech room”. He took down the video game posters, brought in a couch, and cleaned it up. His advice to other advisors was that this little thing mattered. He wasn’t sure at the time it was a big deal, but now he’s sure it changed everything.
What does your classroom or clubroom say about who belongs there? And if you aren’t sure, ask some students.
Mark Guzdial wrote this short report from a gathering of the National Center for Women & IT Computing (NWCIT). Several talks focused on international studies that show that IT is not considered a “male” vocation in many less developed countries. For example, says Guzdial,
Vivian Lagesen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology presented her study of Malaysia, where the 52% of all CS undergraduate majors are female. Vivian interviewed students, department chairs (mostly female), and a Dean (female). She found that Malaysians can’t understand why anyone would think computing is particularly male — if anything, they consider it more female, since it’s safe, mostly inside work “like cooking.”
We’ve seen this in our work in Malaysia as well. Even in schools where males and females are taught in segregated classrooms, the prevalence of female IT staff and IT teachers is striking.
The article summarizes some speculation about why this is true, but here’s my take on it. I believe the search for gender identity is a strong human need. When societies evolve to be more equal, the barriers to gender entry into specific fields change from externally imposed to self imposed. Women used to be strongly discouraged, even banned outright from certain professions. That, thankfully is no longer the case in the US.
Instead, these practices have been replaced with more subtle cultural definitions of what femininity and masculinity mean. I think people are as influenced as much by these subtle signals as being overtly told that women “aren’t good at math.” In other countries where women have more defined cultural roles, perhaps they feel like they have enough gender identity, and don’t have to rely on a job to define themselves.
My thought is that there is a fine line between outright discrimination based on gender and culturally imposed definitions of gender that mold girls’ views of who they are. And if there are fewer externally imposed rules, people create their own. Sending messages to girls about their ability to be engineers and scientists has to go beyond simply telling them, “you can do anything!”