How to improve gender balance at outreach activity for children
December 14, 2017 7:01 AM   Subscribe

My colleague is running a computer science outreach event at a science fair. Any tips on how to increase participation amongst girls?

I am a PhD student in a computer science department in the United Kingdom. My colleague is trying to run an outreach event for 6-14 year olds. The activity teaches python by having participants manipulate objects in a Minecraft instance using code. The event takes place within the context of a science fair where attendees walk around the campus and join in with those activities that interest them.

My colleague finds that an overwhelming number of the participants are boys. His belief is that this is because of a preconception amongst the children that computer oriented activities are for boys.
posted by lovelyzoo to Education (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In the US, some organizations lure kids to their activities by doing advance outreach to Girl Scouts/ Boy Scouts and presenting their activity as one that meets a badge requirement.

Include women in running the activity.

Set up next to an area that attracts more girls.
posted by metasarah at 7:14 AM on December 14, 2017 [15 favorites]

* Maybe change the activity to something that's less stereotypically male than video games? There is some really cool stuff out there that mixes art and textiles with microcontrollers.
* I'm betting that having a woman helping out running the activity would help, but I'd bristle at being asked to do it just because I'm female.
* Can you cheat, and pay a friend's girl to hang out at your table as a peer example that this is a thing for girls too?
posted by Metasyntactic at 7:19 AM on December 14, 2017

Is it, or does it appear to be, a solitary activity? Can it be structured as something that encourages pairs or groups of participants?
posted by rlk at 7:20 AM on December 14, 2017

Yes, have women running the booth. Maybe have a version of the activity that is a bit more “girly” - My Minecraft experience is limited but there should be some subset of stuff in it that is stereotypically girly, right? Note that not all girls want this, but some will, and you want to appeal across the spectrum.

And be proactive and encouraging in asking girls who walk by if they want to try it. Don’t wait for them to approach.
posted by olinerd at 7:21 AM on December 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

I would work on attracting all children who may not be familiar with Minecraft. It might be that the perception is that you have to already know/like Minecraft to participate. I'd try to have a screen or big posterboard up that shows something visually appealing and beginner-friendly, maybe using one of the Minecraft skins that make it look more colorful and welcoming.
posted by xo at 7:29 AM on December 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

Maybe have a banner with a picture of a boy and a girl?
posted by tracer at 7:33 AM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I wouldn’t have joined in as a girl, not because of a ‘preconception’, or lack of textile crafts, but because groups of boys will often bully and actively exclude girls who try to join activities like this. I don’t know how, but...make sure that doesn’t happen.
posted by The Toad at 7:41 AM on December 14, 2017 [36 favorites]

Nthing having a woman or women run the activity and also having it be something that the youth can participate in in partners or groups.

Also-- maybe you can think about how to make initial participation seem low stakes. I think sometimes getting started in this type of situation can be intimidating-- you've got to enter the space that's set up, get instructions on how to complete the activity and then you've sort of committed to giving it a try even if you realize you're not that into it. Maybe there is some way you could have an additional interactive activity or display that anyone can engage with casually-- something that groups can do as they walk by without too much guidance. Then, after they're a little more hooked you can invite them to participate in the main activity.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:51 AM on December 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

So! I'm involved in STEM outreach, and I have a kid in that age range. We recently attended an event promoting math and some math-related topics. (He's a boy but the point might be useful.) Most of the activities were framed as games or building activities, and he happily drifted in and out of them, very engaged. The computer room, for some reason, was explicitly framed as "Hey, do you want to learn how to program a computer?" instead of "Hey, do you want to play a game?" and he pretty much instantly noped out because he doesn't know how to program a computer, even though that was kind of the point. The kids who were in that room were notably older and male-r and more focused and serious about what they were doing. I suspect they were kids who already knew enough about programming to feel confident that they could learn more.

I'd be careful of your framing. Ask if they want to play a game, or build something cool, or make a robot move. They can learn about the tool used to do that as they go, and maybe discover that they're good at something they hadn't considered before.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:35 AM on December 14, 2017 [14 favorites]

I would suggest have a program geared for the girls. In the fifth grade, my sons' school have had separate science and math classes for the boys and girls. The stories I heard were that the girls really opened up when in a class of only girls.
posted by tman99 at 8:40 AM on December 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

I wouldn’t have joined in as a girl, not because of a ‘preconception’, or lack of textile crafts, but because groups of boys will often bully and actively exclude girls who try to join activities like this.
A lot of research I found about gender parity in computer science study backs this up as being a big, big issue. There might be some preconception that computers are "for boys", but girls who are interested are often physically excluded from participation by boys who monopolize computer resources (e.g., a group of boys take over the classroom computers and refuse to let girls use them). There is also social bullying by boys—and unfortunately, sometimes more subtly by adult instructors—who pick on girls' perceived lack of knowledge and devalue using computers to facilitate traditionally feminine interests.

As a teacher, you can actively intervene in this problem by making sure girls get equitable access to space, hardware, and instructional resources, and by presenting and validating diverse examples of computing applications.
posted by 4rtemis at 8:56 AM on December 14, 2017 [15 favorites]

The activity teaches python by having participants manipulate objects in a Minecraft instance using code.

I'm a male programmer who grew up playing with LEGO and that would have been exactly, totally, 100% my interest, and at the time I would not have noticed a complete lack of girls, unless there was one literally standing next to me waiting her turn. That's bad.

I think you need to figure out a way to make this an explicitly collaborative activity where different skillsets and approaches are valued and useful (just like, uh, actual programming has turned out to be). I think you need to have different tracks and make it clear that "success" means combining all of those skills effectively as a team. You could have an intake area demonstrating each of the skills separately, and then as kids gravitate (or arrive in groups) you can let them self-assign roles and learn how everything works together, then move out of the intake area to the project area and allow space for more arrivals. You'll also need to manage time in the project area so individual kids don't monopolize (which is totally a thing I would have done without realizing it).

So, maybe you can have kids build objects to a spec, and have a couple different types of object that they can choose to build, but then you have an object interaction where the built objects all have to work together to accomplish something, so each kid has a real contribution, but success is all the contributions working together. If kids show up in twos or threes you can encourage pair programming or divide-and-conquer, and if a kid is shy and solo you can still have them meet a spec, or team up with other kids on the spot.
posted by fedward at 9:05 AM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

For complex reasons, there are waaaayyyyy more boys into minecraft than girls. I just think this activity is automatically selecting for boys.

As a data point, my STEM-y daughter is averse to girl specific tech activities (although I think there's good evidence they are successful). I do think making sure there are women and girls there is helpful. Find a woman co-leader, and let her really lead. Bring your daughter/niece/other female girl to hang out at the booth and be a teacher's assistant. Actually you could pay a pre-teen girl a small stipend to be an assistant and help teach the activity.
posted by latkes at 9:05 AM on December 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

I disagree with having the kids divide up activities; that’s exactly how girls get shunted into writing or presenting or designing. (Not that those things are bad, yadda yadda).

I’m actually surprised about the Minecraft thing; a lot of the Minecraft fans I know are girls, and a lot of the techy girls I know are into Minecraft. I mean, it’s not surprising that there are more boys in it for obvious reasons, but I don’t know that Minecraft is a turn off to girls (if I were younger I probably would have gotten into it). I think the real turnoff may be that even girls who ARE into Minecraft can very easily get bullied or condescended to among a mostly male Minecraft group.

I also disagree with the textile things... not a strong disagree, but “girl-oriented” science activities often seem to me to miss the mark. They focus too hard on appealing to girls instead of focusing on what’s appealing about science, which is that it’s rigorous and fascinating.

My best suggestion would be to present coding in the context of something that would be new to most if not all of the kids. Girls will be less likely to feel intimidated if everyone is starting from square one. Finding such an activity that is also appealing to all may be tough, though.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:12 AM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

physically excluded from participation by boys who monopolize computer resources (e.g., a group of boys take over the classroom computers and refuse to let girls use them).

Even if there's nobody 'refusing to let' girls use the resources, just the fact that it's an environment where people are jostling/competing to use resources, or where there's time pressure or crowd pressure, would make it less interesting. Why would someone deal with that? That's not fun.

I'm not assuming that this is going on in your friend's activity, but it's something to consider as a factor.
posted by amtho at 9:13 AM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Things that are in my experience appealing to girls that subvert the most common stereotypes: nature, programming as a language/logic game, cracking secret codes and detective/spy themes, NLP, creating a journal or log of some kind, learning how photos are stored and manipulated on computers, medicine.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:17 AM on December 14, 2017 [10 favorites]

I thought this tweet was inspirational, and language like this could help encourage reluctant participants:
If you're a new programmer I just want you to know

me and all of my colleagues with years of experience

Google the most basic things _daily_.

- @oliviacpu
posted by moonmilk at 9:34 AM on December 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is a stretch. My 12 yo girl is really into creating and participating in escape room activities right now. These are often problems/puzzles solved by groups of 2 or more with a mystery element. The components can be computer or not-computer or a combination. It would be cool to frame the activity as an escape room activity that starts with a non-digital component leading to the computer. Quick example - interested child is handed a three-dimensional sculpture/object/fabric with a symbol/code on it, elsewhere in the room/space is a code breaker object (framed on the wall?) or a black light pen, the decoded answer is a clue on how to access the minecraft activity on the computer (just the password?), at the end of successfully completing a short python-based activity, the minecraft object is manipulated and presents the "solution" to the escape room (the old "princess is saved" but updated to be "the meteor is prevented from hitting earth" or "the door is unlocked" or whatever). More here
TL;DR frame the activity as a story with both computer and non-computer components.
posted by RoadScholar at 9:34 AM on December 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

I disagree with having the kids divide up activities; that’s exactly how girls get shunted into writing or presenting or designing. (Not that those things are bad, yadda yadda).

Yeah, I agree, and that was why I said "different components" and not "one person should set requirements" and "one person should be the scrum master and account for deliverables." I've been in software too long and known too many women burned out on documentation to think the roles should be defined that way.

I'm thinking the actual coding (and life) skills being demonstrated should be the same, but the implementation should be different. In terms of physical objects (and not Minecraft) the extreme example of this would be if each kid (or team of kids) had to build a single component of a Rube Goldberg machine, roughly defined as "accept this input and do this output" but without anything else defined. The kids get to pick a component and implement it, but no one kid builds multiple components (unless you have a 10X kid and workstation time allows), and then the end result is tested.

You could even start with defined objects and have the code manipulation be "add this function to this object" but I think the joy is in watching the Rube Goldberg code get executed and seeing your component do its thing as part of the whole.

I will admit that a part of the Rube Goldberg idea that appeals to me personally is the possibility of interesting failure, but that's something that would have to be very carefully handled with boys (who veer too quickly into bullying) and mixed-gender groups (where girls take undeserved abuse and internalize mistakes). I feel like an important part of programming is having and learning from mistakes, but that's a terrible age group for that and I think an adult has to control the interaction and steer those stereotypical behaviors. Like, an all-girl team would probably laugh about it AND collaborate to fix it, but a mixed-gender team would result in boys laughing and girls withdrawing.
posted by fedward at 9:35 AM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

It strikes me that 6-14 is a really large age range, and also that girls start self-selecting out way earlier than that, but may be present in a higher percentage at the younger end of the range.

So I think one thing to consider is whether the Minecraft/Python activity is a strong one for 6 & 7 year olds and how to make that clear.

I would also do recruiting outside of the event, so post to local parenting groups with the angle of inspiring girls and boys. By the time they are there, it's too late.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:36 AM on December 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Have the organizers and facilitators read some articles on the kinds of subtle sexism that causes girls to not feel welcome in STEM. They need to be vigilant of their own and other participants' unconscious biases and behaviours before going into it, to avoid stuff like amtho's point about girls being turned off by having to jostle for resources.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:37 AM on December 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

I agree with the toad. My son, who is 9 , explained to me that the reason all the girls left or rather dropped out of certain activities at school is that the older boys bullied the girls relentlessly and that the girls now gave up. This is a school btw that actively seeks to encourage girls to explore science math, etc and as far as i can tell staff is committed to this but still were powerless to prevent the boys from pushing the girls out by teasing and mocking. Now they offer separate groups for boys and girls.
posted by 15L06 at 11:50 AM on December 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

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