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Girls and Technology: Painting a New Picture

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Guest bloggers Alexandra Diracles and Melissa Halfon are the co-founders of an online interactive platform designed for girls to learn technology by customizing videos with code.

Girls are getting excited about learning technology because it is fun, creative, and social. Much of the gender gap in the industry is a result of how technology fields are portrayed to those outside of them. Girls in middle school and high school have long held a perception that coding is "boring", "hard" or "not for them." The existing system is one dominated by white males. The voice of the leading industry companies and figures get media attention and create the social stigma that tech is a boys' club. It's that stigma that influences everybody -girls & boys, kids & parents - and paints one and only one picture of what it means to be in tech. We want to paint a different picture because we know there is so much more that the industry is and could be. This has shaped their opinions and influenced their decisions during a crucial developmental stage that will inform their college focus and career choices later on.

We're working to change those perceptions. This past spring, Alexandra Diracles, co-founder of Vidcode, was completing her Master's thesis at NYU ITP with a focus on ways to advance girls' participation in technology. During months of researching, she went straight to the source to collect answers directly from girls on what they wanted in a programming environment. In our user testing, we targeted our very specific user: girls ages 11 and up. We surveyed these girls in-person and collected their responses relating to questions about computer science e.g. What is comp science? How do you feel about it?  What can you make with code? What would you like to make? This was our way of uncovering how girls feel about computer science and evaluating how that contributes to solving their lack of involvement. Three messages jumped out:

  1. They want to pair it with a hobby,
  2. Make it creative, and
  3. Do it with friends.

These are the key drivers in our work. We are giving girls an exploratory, and social way of learning code.

We developed Vidcode as a free online educational platform to learn computer programming by customizing videos with code. Users can upload their videos, code their own effects and animations using JavaScript, and share their creations with friends. It's an activity that connects coding to what teenagers are routinely doing: creating and sharing videos.

Coding is Creative
Learning computer science in a creative setting makes it inviting to a number of girls that might otherwise not discover it and reveals a new entry point for them to learn to code. With the incredible state of technologies, there is opportunity to build projects that span a variety of interests like storytelling, art, and music - all with code. Engaging in those kinds of open-ended projects while learning digital skills changes girls' perspectives on technology and their involvement in it. Programming is a creative endeavor; it employs a person with a set of tools they can use to make things they could previously only imagine. Girls need to know that.

Coding Can Be Social
The social trait is integral to getting girls involved as well.  It's ironic that coding has long been viewed as an anti-social activity given that code is responsible for all the tools we use today to share information and stay connected. The process of developing software is also social in itself, with developers habitually swapping tips and resources, creating the culture of open source software. The stereotype of the lonesome guy in a basement is starting to fade. Learning collaboratively is not only an effective way to absorb information, but reinforces what girls want: to pursue learning with their friends. They need to know they don't have to go it alone, but that they can and should be coding together.

Interdisciplinary Opportunities Allow for Authentic Opportunities
There are multitudes of resources online to learn to code, yet we're seeing the same types of exercises over and over again: how to make a robot jump or how to build tic-tac-toe. The problem with this trend is that everyone doesn't want to build a website or a game. Girls, and kids in general, are better suited to learn when subject matter ties to their interests. And with all the possibilities of what can be created with code, there are many ways to leverage those interests. Schools and educators should explore cross-disciplinary curriculum, which focuses on pairing subjects like art and math with computer science.

Girls, Girls, Girls
The girls we need to reach are some of the largest consumers of technology today. They're using products on a daily basis that they don't realize are made with code. That connection needs to be brightly clarified so they can understand the direct association of what they're using and what they could be producing. Imagine if every teen user of Instagram knew that all that lies behind those photo filters is a block of code, code that they could learn and use to build their own app.

The gender gap in technology is not a new problem and in recent decades, has only widened. Since the mid 80's, the percent of women enrolling in computer science majors has dropped from nearly 40 percent to 12 percent presently. It hasn't helped that the public face of the industry has been dominated by a certain type of person, from Bill Gates through Mark Zuckerberg, which doesn't make it any more inviting to young women.

STEM and Coding Now
By 2020, 1.4 million computing-related jobs will surface. Without a systematic change, a sizable chunk of the population will continue to be excluded, leaving many of those positions unfulfilled. Luckily, some landmark technology companies are shifting from complacently accepting gender inequality issues to drawing attention to them. With corporate giants like Google and Facebook releasing the gender breakdowns of their tech workforce, 17% and 15% women respectively, this topic is taking position front and center. There is steady momentum around getting girls in STEM and kids coding right now. While people are listening, it's time to voice solutions. Start with this formula: make it fun, creative, and social.

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