Everyone is trying to figure out how to get girls interested in STEM: that is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. We’re not so sure about all those other topics, but we think we’ve got the software development and math aspects figured out. The secret to teaching little girls to program isn’t to offer specialized girly instructions, or to use pink keyboards, or alternative learning methods. The simple truth is that the best way to get little girls into programming is to get other little girls into programming.
And here’s the surprising part: this isn’t hard to do. You just need an even number of girls. This is because little girls automatically pair program, provided they’re not shy.
We’ve observed this behavior a dozen times over the last year. The little girls that show up to our classes tend to be around 8-10, younger than many of the boys that attend. When little girls attend our classes, they either bring a friend, or immediately latch onto the nearest other girl. The only exceptions have been the obvious tom-boys; girls who seem comfortable surrounded by boys due to having a high number of brothers. You can spot them a mile away because they tend to be slightly more competative than the standard-issue little girl. One such tom-boy was taking great pride in teaching the boys how to add background pictures to their games, then left to attend soccer practice in the afternoon.
But your typical “dolls and ponies,” “sugar and spice and everything nice” little girl prefers to learn programing in the company of other girls. They end up building games that are almost exactly the same in design as the boys, but they love to iterate in a tandem way.
Today, we had only 2 little girls in our packed classroom of 13 kids. Immediately upon arrival, one was asking if she could be seated next to the other. For most of the class, they shared the same chair, leaning back and forth between screens evaluating each others work while iterating their own. At the end, the only one’s left 30 minutes after the end of class were the 2 girls, asking questions, modifying their games, chattering with each other.
They were continually revising their work while in close consort with each other. They were each working on their own project, but they were essentially collaborating on both at the same time. It was a total Anne of Green Gables moment: best friends at play. This time, however, their play was including math and software development. I don’t think they quite realized how complicated the stuff they were learning can seem to the uninitiated.
There’s a lot to learn from this. Millions of dollars are spent on studies and higher level education degrees every year, dedicated to understanding why it is that girls aren’t interested in STEM. Why are there fewer women in science, technology and engineering than men?
The answer, I feel, is simply a matter of cultural and societal norms, not one of aptitude, interest or availability. Most kids in wealthy homes have access to computers, reguardless of gender, and daughters attend college today as often as sons, unlike say, 50 years ago. We can’t blame college or technology gaps for the barrier.
I think the disparity is simply a cultural and societal thing. Little girls love videogames just as much as little boys. But when the time comes to deeply learn about a topic, perhaps videogames aren’t the most enticing target, when a girl is considering what she wants from adult life. When girls see the ultimate, top of the top triple A games are just kill kill kill, shoot shoot shoot, like Call of Duty, they probably don’t consider videogames as an exciting place to be beyond their Nintendo DS and Facebook games.
But when you unleash their creativity with a course on game making, girls are every bit as into it as boys. I attribute this to the fact that we’re offering them a new creative outlet, and also focusing on games that are significantly less in-your-face, violent and competative. Our classes focus on racing games, moon-lander, basketball, and other simple concepts that are easy to create, and don’t involve killing anything.
This is all just assumption and stereo-typing, however. Girls don’t only like The Sims, and boys don’t only like Call of Duty. Girls and boys really only have one overarching motivation when choosing a game to play: is it fun? And fun is somewhat subjective. Kids play games they enjoy, reguardless of gender. And when given the oppportunity to create, kids create games they enjoy. And they all do so with generally the same levels of competency by age, reguardless of gender.
If we want more women engineers, software developers, chemists, we need to make sure they’re able to participate in groups. Again, anyone who’s read Anne of Green Gables can attest, little girls who are best friends can be inseperable. If you can get them both interested in a STEM topic, you can teach them anything in that domain.
If there really is any secret at all that we’ve learned, beyond gender, cultural, societal lines, it’s this: kids like videogames. If you ask a kid “do you want to learn to make videogames?” the answer is alwyas “Yes!” And if you teach the kids how to make games with Scratch, they will quickly learn how to program.
You just have to unlock the power of agile through pair programming, as it were.