How to get (and keep) girls jazzed about programming

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 Google. 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.
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