Stichting NewTechKids is committed to stimulating girls’ interest in computer science and programming, beginning in primary school. We’re developing new teaching approaches and lesson plans which recognise how both girls and boys learn this subject and the differences in their learning processes. Our goal is to share our knowledge and experience with schools, teachers and parents.
In late 2016/early 2017, we’ll publish a report which provides:
- an overview of our approach to teaching computer science
- our observations related to the different ways in which girls and boys learn the subject and can learn from each other; and
- specific recommendations to better engage girls with computer science for computer science curriculum developers, teachers and parents.
Our team will share observations and insights based on our experience teaching computer science programs both during and after school. We are collaborating with NewTechKids, the company with which we work to test and improve our programs, which is also our commercial branch.
Some Observations So Far
1. Awareness and Preconceptions Around Technology
In general, girls come to the programs we develop with much less knowledge and pre-conceived notions about technology, computer science and programming than boys. This means that teaching them about these subjects can be geared more heavily to discovery and helping them develop new notions about technology and how it can be applied.
On the other hand, boys come to these programs with more general awareness of technology, but in very specific contexts. They tend to have stronger, pre-conceived notions about technology due to their technology consumption and the influence of the popular culture they consume (video games, movies, books and comics, previous programming experience with Minecraft and Scratch, etc.)
In some cases, teachers need to correct certain assumptions. For example, most of the boys and certain girls we have taught define programming in very narrow terms: using a programming language such as Java, Python, Scratch or HTML to develop an app or a Web page. They often don’t understand that programming is a process which also involves design cycles, testing and iteration and is linked to other processes such as automation.
2. Computers: stand-alone devices vs. embedded in objects
For example, when students are taught about computers and their main parts, girls can quickly and easily identify the different objects in which computers are embedded such as traffic lights, subway doors, elevators and thermostats. On the other hand, boys tend to first identify more literal examples such as desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones and tablets. Once examples of broader applications are given, both girls and boys can generate numerous examples of computers embedded in objects.
3. Robots vs. Robotics
During the ‘Visual Programming & LEGO Mindstorms’ bootcamp classes we have developed, students are asked to design and program robots of their choice using LEGO Mindstorms. Almost 100% of the time, the boys begin building a traditional robot (body with a head, eyes, arms and legs) based on the examples provided in LEGO’s software and packaging. On the other hand, girls usually design a broader array of constructions which integrate robotic features (vehicles and structures) as well as traditional robots.
Suggestions for Teaching Computer Science and Programming Lessons
It’s very important for teachers to broaden children’s notions of what technology is and how it can be applied. This prepares them to re-imagine traditional technology and develop ideas for new applications and solutions.
The tendency of girls to see technology more broadly (computers embedded in all kinds of objects, designing robotic objects vs. robots) should be a source of inspiration for teaching.
1. Teach Technology as Both Stand-Alone and Embedded:</strong> When designing lessons, we encourage teachers to emphasize that technology can be a specific solution itself and it can be embedded in something else to create a solution. For example, a laptop computer vs. a smart thermostat which has a computer embedded in it.
2. Discuss a Wide Range of Examples: </strong>Stichting NewTechKids encourages teachers to take deliberate steps to expand students’ understanding of computers, robots and robotics. In the teaching materials we develop, we present examples in different shapes and forms from around the world, ranging from drones and satellites to robotic limbs, robotic arms used in factories, and underwater exploration vehicles.
3. Teach Kids the Difference Between Robots and Robotics:</strong> All of the lessons that Stichting NewTechKids develops include a challenge, completed mostly in teams. In the case of robots vs. robotics, we train teachers to steer students away from building traditional robots. Instead, train teachers to challenge them to apply computer science concepts such as loops, if-else statements and sequences to design and program robotic vehicles, building structures, machines and other objects to solve specific challenges which we frame in descriptive, fun ways.
Here’s a fun example which shows how robotics have been applied to solve an issue which affects children and their families: Laundroid, the world’s first automated laundry-folding robot, developed by Seven Dreamers Laboratories, a Japanese company.