Teaching programming to girls

cropped-GGDBlackWebImage2How to get girls interested in programming is the question on my mind today.

I recently extended my kids programming groups into high school. My partner in volunteer teaching and I were thrilled the first week to see a couple of girls turn up; but in the face of the overwhelming numbers of boys involved they soon faded away. In response we’re going to start up a group solely for girls and put to the test the theory that we can encourage girls into programming in the right circumstances. The ‘right circumstances’ include:

  • Make a cool girls-only environment (the slight problem there being that we two group leaders are male, but there’s not much we can do about that);
  • Focus on appropriate projects (finding appropriate that is not stereotypical is going to be interesting);
  • Get some role models involved to demonstrate that it is not a nerdy activity (in this case the coolest female teacher in the school).

Now I’m hoping that this divide on the basis of sex won’t be permanent: That we can get a group of girls kickstarted in programming and then merge the groups. Eventually the boys and girls of computing will have to work together and separation can only be harmful to finding a modus vivendi in the long-term. But the idea is that by the time groups merge we’ll have girls who are confident programmers in their own right and who can match the boys who currently seem to have a head start in things technical.

I guess that head start is no surprise given that boys can play on computers and build with LEGO from a young age and it’s seen as, at least relatively, cool. For girls it’s much harder. That was driven home to me in our robotics group recently when it because obvious that some of the girls had never played with LEGO. Ever.

One of the issues facing us in setting up the girls-only programming group is what to call it. The advice we have is that it needs an attractive name to get girls in and ‘programming’ is off-putting. I’m not happy with the idea of moving far from ‘programming’ simply because the group is about teaching programming; that’s why we’re doing this – we feel kids ought to learn to program so that they have control over the technology that surrounds them. The idea is to provide an outlet for the girls who are interested in learning programming, rather that to just attract lots of girls to the group by changing its nature. The question of a name remains unresolved.

Anyway, I was looking around the internet for examples of girl programming groups and found the interesting Girl Geek Sydney which holds regular meetings and dinners to encourage women in technology. I like a great deal of their manifesto:

  • Girl Geeks Sydney is a community offering support, networking and mentorship to women involved in technology and the web
  • Girl Geeks Sydney believe that women do not always receive fair or equal opportunities and are dedicated to changing that situation
  • Girl Geeks Sydney do not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, age, race, religion or programming language
  • Girl Geeks Sydney encourage women to be fiercely, passionately outspoken but are committed to helping the voices of the quiet, the shy and the n00b to be heard
  • Girl Geeks Sydney believe that well behaved women seldom make history

All good stuff, but probably not a great help with the issue of finding a name for a high school girls programming group. I have a feeling that Girls Behaving Badly wont go down so well with the school.

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