Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Pink Lacquer

I came across the absurdity of Jewelbots, a friendship bracelet currently in the Kickstarter stage that supposedly will get pre-teen girls interested in programming. To which, why is it that this is even a Thing? Isn't this condescending, the idea that STEM subjects need a special pink lacquer or girls won't take interest in them? There seemingly is no end to gimmicks in this area, and yet, as Pittsburgh's Carnegie Science Center discovered, use the wrong language and the outrage machine kicks in. No matter that "Science With A Sparkle" was the choice of focus-group girls in the same age range, and no matter that it was the result of an earnest (if perhaps tone-deaf) attempt to increase girls' interest in science:
Regarding Girl Scout-specific programming, we have struggled when it comes to enrollments for our Girl Scout programs. In the past, we have offered engineering, chemistry, and robotics programming for Girl Scouts. We created programming to go along with the new Journeys that Girl Scouts use. Unfortunately, no troops signed up for these. The programs that consistently get enrollments are "Science with a Sparkle" and our Sleepovers at the museum.
 Such are the brick walls upon which the cult of Ada Lovelace dash themselves head first. So is there hope here? It's not clear, but one sign might be Harvey Mudd's approach, which college president Maria Klawe says has quadrupled their female computer science graduates, to 40 percent of the total:
At Harvey Mudd we’ve focused on changing four things about learning CS: make it fun, make it relevant, make it not scary and make it clear that lots of kinds of people have careers involving CS. We changed the context of the intro course to “creative problem-solving in science and engineering using computational approaches with Python” instead of “learn to program in Java” and made sure that the homework assignments were a lot of fun. We did not reduce the level of rigor or challenge, and we increased the amount of programming.

We reduced the “scary factor” by separating our first year students into three sections: CS 5 gold for students with little or no programming experience, CS 5 black for students with a fair amount of programming experience, and CS 42 for students with a lot of experience (CS 42 covers the first two courses in the sequence, 5 and 60). Our instructors had private conversations with students who were using up a disproportionate amount of air time in class talking about arcane details and asked them to have those conversations with the instructors in private because other students found their level of knowledge intimidating.
This would seem to remove the people who really love the subject (and have been coding for years prior to college) out of the intro-level classes, where they can dominate professorial mindshare. I'm not entirely sold on this, but if it does indeed work, it's a far sight better — but harder — than bedazzling.

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