Commentary: Keeping the ‘T’ in STEM

October 21, 2012

In 1994, I started an after school club called Girls Excelling in Math and Science to encourage girls to build rockets, mix chemicals and get messy. Over the past 18 years, we’ve had a ball — and the girls have thrived.

In 2012, I am doing something a little different and focusing club activities on motivating girls to embrace technology — as creators, not users.

For some of us working directly with girls in elementary and middle schools, it has been easier to ignore technology and offer experiences and activities in the other three STEM components: Science, Engineering, and Math.

Technology was simply considered a tool to get a job done; little thought is given to how it works, other than when the program fails or the projector won’t light up. Many women are afraid to tinker with the machines, or change something on the computer, fearing that they will “break it.”

There are other barriers as well. Bringing in a brief science or engineering activity to an after school club can be easily managed, given the vast number of ideas and resources available in these fields. But teaching a new skill, program or technology tool usually requires more than one session and much more equipment than the average group has. In addition, borrowing school or community center equipment can be fraught with difficulties, such as administrative rights on computers to install software, Internet filters blocking Web sites, and the need to spend significant amounts of time on the program to master it. These real barricades present obstacles to teaching technology in extracurricular activities.

That needs to change. Early exposure to IT can build confidence in girls, and encourage them to pursue future educational opportunities in the field. Furthermore, careers in IT are plentiful, high-paying and meaningful.

But enrollment and participation in computing classes has been dropping steadily since the 1980s, and fewer and fewer women are graduating with computer science or IT degrees. Not only are the girls missing out on great careers, but the world at large is missing out on their talents and perspectives as women.

How can we overcome this problem?

Resources abound.

The National Center for Women and Information Technology offers 60 downloadable ideas, including Computer Science in a Box, which teaches the premises of computing without the use of machines

Or consider logic puzzles. Computer science demands a certain facility with logic — being able to work through problems in different ways and see all sides. Web sites such as puzzles.com, brainden.com and mathisfun.com offer plenty of brain teasers.

Since my clubs have computer access, we will take advantage of programming languages designed for kids:

Scratch (developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) creates animations, stories and games. Give the girls five minutes of instruction and watch them take off.

Alice (alice.org) encourages children, and particularly girls, to explore computer science and programming.

EToys (squeakland.org) teaches kids the logic of programming and leads to using formal languages like Java or Python.

Still, all the fun and interesting programs in the world won’t entice a girl unless she feels comfortable in the area.

Take a look around the computer lab/room where girls learn. Does the room look like a locker room or “man cave,” with “teams” and “Star Trek” figures? Or does it look like place where girls and boys of all cultures are welcome, with posters of successful women and men, maybe a plant or two (if you can keep them alive) and light — lots of light?

Because girls learn better in groups, the lab shouldn’t feature isolated computer stations where students hunch over and stare at the screen. Instead, our lab will have pairs of computers, with room to talk and work together.

Let’s all work together to make technology inviting and not intimidating for girls.

Laura Reasoner Jones is a technology specialist with Fairfax County Public Schools. She founded the GEMS Clubs and serves on the Mid-Atlantic Girls Collaborative leadership team.

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