On girls, making, and using social pressure for good

bristle bot with tilt switchEven though I spend a lot of time talking with people about what might encourage high school girls to remain interested in programming, I’m always reluctant to draw generalised stereotypical conclusions: For example, I’ve seen little evidence that girls like narrative projects more than boys do – or vice versa.

That doesn’t change the fact that finding something to battle the wave of social pressures against coding, that high school girls face, has proved elusive.

At one point earlier in the year our girls programming group had more participants than the general group. But then one of the girls decided it was no longer cool, another got a boyfriend and started spending lunchtimes with him, another started playing basketball. Each of these pulled two or three of their friends away with them and we started losing ground to social pressures.

So recently we decided to try something different. We started the girls on basic electronics and making – and we seem to have hit a sweet spot, maybe. And here’s the generalised, stereotypical bit: The thing that seems to work well is that the girls like sitting around a table and chatting while making things.

This week, for example, we made bristle-bots with a tilt-switch attached so that they turn off when they fall over. Each took about half an hour to put together and get working – so perfect for a lunchtime. The really encouraging thing was watching the girls begin to experiment with the parts and discuss possibilities: “Is it better if I move the motor nearer the middle?”, “What happens if I attach the motor to something else?”, “Hmmm… how about if we put paint on the brush?”.

From a practical point of view this is a good way of making social pressure work in our favour – the social group is the reason for coming. Making things is also, from a practical point of view, good advertising as the girls go back to class after lunch and show off what they’ve done. This is all good.

The niggling negative thing is that although this is nicely creative and geeky, it isn’t programming. The interesting longer-term goal will need to be to see if we can nurture this process along and into using Arduinos to get programming into the mix.

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