[Edu-sig] Girls, women and Programming (- and Python)

djr djrassoc01@mindspring.com
Sun, 04 Aug 2002 12:18:35 -0500

(Also sent to the original poster...)

Gregor Lingl wrote:

> ...
> I'll formulate two questions:
> 1) Why are there so few girl and women interested in programming?
> (look, for instance, at the list of partiicipants of all those mailing
> lists)
> And consequently
> 2) How do I get them interested? Which kinds of material, approaches,
> examples etc. are appealing to female students?
> Do YOU have any experiences concerning this question. J

Yes, I have some experiences in this area.  See my Pearls of Perl
handout, the other Perl items, and the Mars Space camp link.


I did the computer club sessions last year using the same approach
as with Perl but using Python and it worked well.  The handouts
are not ready to go up yet though.

If I had to boil what I learned about this down to 25 words or less,
I would say:

Boys learn by taking things apart.
Girls learn by putting things together.

The implication of this (gross oversimplification) is that in addition
to the basic elements of the language you give boys examples which
do things computationally (and they must all have a visual graphical
componet) and encourage them to tear it apart, change it, and try
to make it work.

With girls, in addition to the basic elements of the language, you give
them templates that they can expand upon and mold to their taste
that produces something that they feel is intrinsically valuable as
an end goal (like an interactive story or what-if diary).

So, the task of writing an interactive story using Perl or Python or
whatever works well as a vehicle for an overall goal of teaching
a computing language because it is a goal beyond the learning of
the computing language of itself and it is not mathematical but
literary as a focus and that works better for many students who
have written stories from Grade 1 but have not had the same
experiences in Math. 

[You can lament this lack of math experience extensively and say
it should be so and argue that you should use Python (or Perl or 
Java or C++ or whatever) to address it but I think such a tack is
unproductive and it is better to address the main goal of interesting
both boys and girls in becoming as literate in communicating to computers
as they are in communicating to human beings.] 

Depending on the student, they can adapt
the story vehicle to whatever it is that motivates them. Even if
you don't get graphical elements going (which can be very hard to be successful at
particularly with the expectations that kids get from seeing commercial
programs), stories can engage the imagination (as they have for 3000

Boys in my experience tend to be more willing to focus on learning
the language and 'messing around' with it.  Girls tend to become
motivated when you can propose a project which means something
to them beyond the fact that it is a computer program written in
Language X or Y or Z.

It is also helpful if you partner with a woman as well as I have 
found that I am often times not as aware of what the dynamics is
in the class setting.  In particular, there are situations where
you find that boys are totalling monopolizing you by asking 
questions while the girls are sitting patiently waiting to get
a word in.  You have to make sure you give equal time to them
and if necessary let the boys not have as much time as they want.

The above comments are based on my experiences and are not meant
to assert the truth of any claim -- just to describe based on 
my limited experience 'what is' and 'what seems to work'.


Dr. David J. Ritchie, Sr.