Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Gender Bias: Girls Who Code

It's summer camp week, and we have 300+ middle schoolers who have joined us for Dordt Discovery Days. It's an "academic camp"--designed to give kids a taste of college life, living in the dorms, eating in the dining hall, taking a couple of exploratory courses, playing all-campus games and activities, and meeting kids from across North America who have come to spend some time with us on campus. I'm co-directing, again, which I love, because it means I get to visit all the classes kids are taking, and talk with them about what they are doing and learning.

It's amazing, honestly. Every time I step into a classroom, I have kids shouting at me...

"Dave! Come see this cartoon character I created!"

"Dave! We're dissecting sharks! Come see what we found in the intestines!"

"Dave! Can you stay for a minute? Our a'cappella group is working on an arrangement of 'Africa,' and we want you to hear it!"

"Dave! Check out the pillow I made! I sewed it myself!"

"Dave! My group has been creating this awesome marble roller coaster--come try it!"

"Dave! We're playing improv games--come join in!"

"Dave! ..."

It's hard for me to pick a best moment of the week, because there have been so many of them (and it's only Wednesday!) But I had a pretty fantastic one in a programming class this morning. One of my colleagues in the Computer Science department has about 20 kids learning to create Android Apps. Mostly a "boy class" (ugh...gender bias...) but there are a few girls in there. I stopped in to see what they were up to, and a few of the kids jumped at the chance to show off what they had been doing--pretty neat stuff, honestly.

But I noticed one young lady hard at work, examining the code she was writing on her computer screen, and then at her tablet that she was using for troubleshooting her code, and then back at a reference file, and then back to her code. I asked what she was doing.

Taking the xylophone to the next level...
"Oh, sorry! I'm in the middle of debugging my code for this app. We learned to create a xylophone app today, where we can tap on the different colored bars and it plays the different notes. But I wanted to take mine to the next level."

"Oh?" I responded. "What are you doing to take it to the next level?"

"Well, I want to be able to record the songs I play on the xylophone so I can play them back later. So I'm figuring out how to code a recording routine. But it's tricky, and I have to fix all the bugs so it works right. I'll get it figured out. I just have to be patient..." and she was back to debugging her app.

I moved on to another young lady who was working on a very complex set of code blocks. I asked her what she was up to.

Creating a digital Sorting Hat...
"Well..." She looked a little sheepish. "Well...I really love Harry Potter. So I'm making a 'sorting hat' app. See, you tap to choose the words you think best describe you, and it tells you which house you belong to."

I asked her if this was a project they had been working on earlier.

"Oh, no, not really. I just love Harry Potter, and decided to figure it out for myself. I'll show you tomorrow if you come back; I should have it finished by then, but I need some graphics yet to make it really look good."

Aren't these great moments?


Now, three things I want to note about this.

1) These are just two examples illustrating the kind of great learning and growth that happens at this camp, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

2) These two young ladies are totally inspiring to me, and I loved to hear them so excited about the work they were doing.

3) It's a sad commentary--even to me, writing this blog--that it stands out to me that these two examples are girls who code.

Why should that be primary? I see some gender bias at play here, even in myself. And I'm calling myself out for it.

I am proud of the kids here at camp. I'm proud of the work they are doing, the enthusiasm they are showing about what they are learning. I'm proud of them using their gifts, further developing their talents, stretching themselves.

But why should it be exceptional that it's girls making these awesome apps? Because we (I?) associate hacking computer code as a "boy" activity? How sad is that? I thought I was past this somehow. My friend teaching the course is female, and I don't think every time, "Oh, she's a female computer scientist..." So why is this so significant when it's middle schoolers?

I'm working on resetting this implicit gender bias internally. I'd love to see that class an equal number of boys and girls in the future, and not because of some quota or anything like that, but because an equal number of girls and boys find coding their own apps interesting, significant, and fun.


  1. Good for you recognizing an area for growth in yourself! So, when you also recognize that society is several steps behind you, what do you do to point out that girls ARE as capable while not patronizing them?

    1. That's the real trick for me, I think! I don't have a good answer for this question--not yet, anyway. Still thinking, thinking, thinking on this.

      Glad you asked, and if any other readers have wisdom on this point, I'll take it with gratitude.