From ‘I probably can’ to ‘I will’
A school I was volunteering at was having an open house for grade 9 girls, to show them the potential of the high school computing science program. A variety of activities were planned — including robotics — to get the girls interested. Elaborate posters were probably going to be put around the hall. I was in conversation with the computers teacher about the open house and he said —
“How will a 45 year old man convince a grade 9 girl to take up computers?”
At that moment, my inner voice said, “I probably can!”
Now, I’m a pre-service teacher who is training to teach computers and math at junior high and high school. I have been to two separate classes for computers. One being a grades 7–8 mix class, and another being an Advanced Placement class. During both times, the introduction my host teachers gave of me included that I have a Masters in Computing Science.
I have always found it interesting that they highlight this qualification when I meet the students for the first time. Yet it never occurred to me how powerful that statement can be for the girls in those rooms. The comment that my host teacher made will always stay with me.
Some insights along the way
There was a webinar through edWeb.net, titled How do we get (and keep) more girls in STEM, by Dr. Azadeh (Azi) Jamalian from Teacher’s College, Columbia University. It was then that I understood the sudden power and purpose I felt that day. I have shared my journey as a woman in computing science in a previous article on Code Like A Girl. Now it is time to look towards the future.
After much research with girls of all ages, Azi shared many insights including:
- The more exposed they are to STEM, the more likely girls are to pursue it.
I grew up in India and STEM was the main focus of education when I was a student. Hence, all students were exposed to math and science concepts until grade 10, the last two grades being the time to choose to pursue something else. Ten years of compulsory exposure is a long time.
- Role models matter.
My mom was my female role model growing up. She was a full time working woman who brought me up, who was there for me when I needed help, or just wanted to talk about what I was learning. She never showed any prejudice for any subject. And she particularly encouraged math because she herself loved it as a student.
- Inspiring teachers are instrumental for girls to choose STEM.
All of my science and computer teachers were female. My female friends also enjoyed computers and we worked together on many projects. Hence, I never felt I couldn’t be part of computers or science. I had more male math teachers than any other subject. Like my mom, and with her further encouragement, I loved math. So there was no reason for me to make the connection that more men pursue math than women. My interest overrode that observation.
What do we do with these insights?
The next part of the webinar talked about how to get and keep girls in STEM.
Knowing these steps has changed my perspective from “I probably can” to “I can”. Because now I have the tools to implement “how I will” to make this possible —
#1. Low Floor and High Ceiling Tasks
Jo Boaler elaborates low floor, and high ceiling tasks in math in her book, Mathematical Mindsets. Low floor tasks are those that are accessible to all learners with the basic knowledge of the area. The high ceiling part of the task allows students to grow and approach the task in their own manner, exploring ideas that were not covered in the class.
Azi adds a third dimension of wide walls which involves problems that provide skills for use in other types of problems and projects. This relates to developing and executing functioning processes. It also involves reflecting on what was learned and seeing the reusability of a technique.
When I am planning lessons and selecting tools, I analyze my tasks using Jo’s low floor and high ceiling definitions. Wide walls is a great addition to this practice. Using tools and preparing activities that all students, girls and boys alike, can explore is one way to keep girls engaged in STEM.
There has been a movement towards STEAM where the ‘A’ stands for Art. There is art in everything. An automobile engineer sketches cars. That is art. Web designers think of user experience, and design the website in a way that is pleasing to the visitors.
It is easy to forget that engineering, science, math or technology — none of these would be possible without design principles, innovation and creativity.
Here’s an article by Jeanette Wing, on Computational thinking. It emphasizes that thinking like a computer scientist is not analogous to being a computer programmer. The concepts of coding are applicable to more than just computers — they have been applied to statistics, biology, as well as art, to name a few broad areas.
This is where STEAM plays a role. Because we can ask our students who are reading a book, to stop and discuss the problem the protagonist might be facing, and exercise problem solving and critical thinking. This also helps them build confidence in their thinking skills, because after the discussion they can find out what the protagonist actually did. We can get them to create a comic for the favourite chapter in a book or use Scratch to play a song. With technology, they can engage in arts and creativity in so many more ways!
#3. Connect girls with female role models.
The teacher is the omnipresent role model. Other role models are all the women who are in STEM. If you are passionate about what you do and the field you are in, then visit a STEM class. Talk to the girls, give a presentation and engage them in an activity. Tell them about what you do and how you got there.
There are many messages floating around about getting more women in STEM — and what girls need are actual role models they can talk to. It is women like us who will get them interested to pursue and like STEM. We have to be there for them. 🙂
#4. Help teachers gain confidence in STEM through projects and professional development.
Many educators and professionals have written about the fear of technology that teachers have. Kasey Bell, in her new book Shake Up Learning, asks the reader to think about how technology has changed their personal and professional lives. She mentions that thoughts such as “I am not good with technology” present a limiting belief — and one needs to change their view of technology as a burden in the classroom
Every single teacher that girls interact with matter. If they see their role models comfortable with technology, it will let them know that they can do this too. This isn’t just about using technology. Similar messages are present in math.
In Mathematical Mindsets, Boaler mentions the effects of role modeling by teachers. Girls tend to relate more and look up to female teachers. Thus, they can catch the hesitancy and dislike of subjects from them. If the teacher tells her female students that she wasn’t good at math either and that math is hard, the girls are more likely to believe that they are bad at it too.
We have to be careful about the messages we give our students. They are smart and they will notice it, and internalize it. We are there to expand their horizons, not diminish them.
I asked myself in my previous article six months ago — When I become a teacher, will I no longer be a woman in Computing Science?
I know the answer now. I will always be a computing scientist first because I would not have discovered my love for teaching without it. I believe because of years of exercising computational thinking, I have been able to apply those concepts to everyday life — in terms of planning for the month, setting and reaching my goals. I no longer remember how I learned programming, but the steps to plan are no different from writing a program for a specific task. Some things have to be done before others.
I have summarized my favorite gems from Azi’s webinar. I highly recommend watching it here, especially if you are an educator. When there is an open house for middle school students to get them into STEM subjects at my school, I will be there. And you should too.