How to get (and keep) girls jazzed about programming

Much has been written about the need to involve girls in coding, but the best path to success is to get them excited about using computers as tools to build what they’re interested in or solve their problems.

It’s not about teaching any particular language — but in getting girls and young women to think computationally, said David Miller, a software engineer at [company]Google[/company]. He should know: he has three daughters and he’s taught all of them to code. He also volunteers at the Newton, Massachusetts branch of Girls Who Code.

He started with his first daughter Sarah, teaching her to write Candyland in Java when she was all of three years old. “Here’s the screen, here are five spaces, all red, and she took one look and said ‘That’s not Candyland.’ She was right. There weren’t enough spaces, and they were all one color.” So lesson one is to start with something the student is familiar with and try to recreate it on-screen.

“You have to get them to a place where they want to know how to make the computer do what they want it to do,” said Miller, who wrote about his efforts on the Google Cloud Platform blog.

Computer literacy is not the goal

There’s a difference between computer literacy and computational thinking. The first means being able to use a word processor to write a story or a spreadsheet to create a budget. The second requires breaking a problem down into bite-sized chunks that a computer can handle and string those steps together to do useful work.

Novice programmers have to grasp that, at the most basic level, a computer can do four things, Miller said. It can “run steps; remember stuff; repeat things; and make decisions based on tests.” In the last case, it will perform option A if X happens or option B if Y happens.

He admitted that three-year-old Sarah didn’t express any particular interest in computers or programming, but she went along with dad for a while, then fell away from computing. But she came back. Now 16, she got interested in the 12-tone scale, and decided to write a program to create some music. She wrote the code, ran into a little glitch and called on her dad to help debug the program.

“She found a real application and picked up her skills again,” Miller said. This is the sort of “aha” moment he hopes more girls have.

His 13-year-old daughter, Ilana, or Lonnie, got a bit more interested in coding than her sister and Miller lauded tools like Pencil Code, a collaborative web site that makes it easy for new programmers to collaborate on projects. Coders can drag and drop graphical blocks of code to create a game or music, and then toggle between the blocks and the actual code. The Khan Academy also has coursework that targets women in technology. (March is Women in History month.)

Miller also cited Turtle Graphics as a tool worth checking out, and for Frozen fans, worked with Disney to press Anna and Elsa into a programming tutorial for young people

David Miller and daughter Ilana.

David Miller and daughter Ilana.

Miller mentioned the huge gap between the girls’ and boys’ section of toy stores — with the boys’ aisles focusing on video and war games, action stuff and the girls’ area all pink and frilly and stressing creativity.

Computer educators should harness that call to creativity in getting girls involved in programming, he noted. If a six-year-old wants to decorate her lunchbox, why not use the computer to create the art? If she wants to create a game, ditto. The result doesn’t have to be perfect. Most kids don’t care about perfection, they care that they did the job, he said.

“Technology should not be a black box — something that’s not to be trusted. That takes us back to Frankenstein,” Miller said. A computer should be a tool like a pencil, something that can be used for many things.

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