Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Coding #likeagirl

Alice watching the video intro for her next coding lesson
I've posted a few things about Alice learning computer code and each time, I've gotten a few questions about what she's using to learn and how she got started and why. So I thought I'd write up a little bit about what we're doing.

Lately, it seems that I've been seeing so many articles about the importance of computer coding and programming as basically the language of the future, as well as the dearth of women in STEM fields (that's science, technology, engineering, and math - in case you aren't hip to the lingo).

Last December, President Obama became the first president to write a line of code as part of the "Hour of Code," an online event promoting Computer Science Education Week. "President Obama spoke about the importance of strengthening STEM education, especially for girls and students underrepresented in STEM fields: "Part of what we're realizing is that we're starting too late when it comes to making sure that our young people are familiar with not just how to play a video game, but how to create a video game."

According to statistics from the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up 47% of the U.S. workforce, but that isn't evenly represented in the STEM fields, or evenly distributed among the fields of discipline. Though they make up high shares of social sciences (58%) and biological/medical sciences (48%), there are significantly less women in engineering (13%), computer and mathematical sciences (25%). The percentage of women entering into computer science studies declined from 37% in 1984 to 18% in 2009. The Labor Department says only 20% of software developers in the U.S. are women, while only 12% of computer science degrees today go to women (I was kind of depressed to see the top 20 occupations for women: secretary, nurse, cashier, teacher, salesperson, waitress, retail supervisor, customer service, maids, childcare, receptionist, etc...).

Here's what the breakdown in the science disciplines looks like.
  • 39% of chemists and material scientists are women;
  • 27.9% of environmental scientists and geoscientists are women;
  • 15.6% of chemical engineers are women;
  • 12.1% of civil engineers are women;
  • 8.3% of electrical and electronics engineers are women;
  • 17.2% of industrial engineers are women; and
  • 7.2% of mechanical engineers are women.

I'm not an expert, and I'm not looking to become one or write a thesis here, but it doesn't take a genius to look around at the way we treat girls in this country to figure out that they are being fed a steady diet of limited expectations. Whether it's messages from clothing stores, toy stores, schools, parents, society at large, etc., it seems to me that the loudest message girls are hearing is that their bodies are their most important asset (rather than their brains) - and that they can't even always be allowed full ownership and autonomy over those...

These kinds of messages pop up too often to even get into here - I don't have the time or the stamina to dredge them all up right now - but they show up particularly frequently in retail environments, and they make my head explode every time they come through my news feeds. Like the infamous "I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother does it for me" shirt, or generally idiotic Barbie (see: "Math class is tough!," and how NOT to be a computer engineer). Or the Marvel Avengers play set replacing the female Black Widow character with Captain America. The play set depicts a scene where Black Widow comes to Captain America's rescue and now, in the play set, he's the rescuer and the female is not even included. Or in the Lego universe, where girls are virtually non-existent in most play sets, including the "city" sets, but now get to enjoy their own universe full of feminine hobbies like swimming, hanging out at home, going to the juice bar or salon, or playing with animals.  To be fair, the girl-oriented "Lego Friends" sets include a couple of cool-looking options like the jungle sets, or the vet clinic, the news van, and a couple of small business type things. The recent female-centric Research Science Institute was a step in the right direction, but it was designed by a fan, and definitely seems like more of a popular vote appeasement than an actual improvement.

Girls are literally half the world, it seems like it would be reasonable for half of the people in the Lego city play sets to be female. This is sending the wrong message to girls, that they are not valuable in the literal day-to-day world that we live in; and it's sending the wrong message to boys, that, beyond female creative hobbies, there is no room for girls in the civic sector (or the military, or space, or fantasy, or adventure) except as side notes or lust objects. This is pretty obviously ingrained in the retail culture, as evidenced when this female licensing manager from Springs Creative replied to a mother's letter inquiring why the female characters (Honey Lemon and Go Go) were not included in the company's Big Hero 6 fabric line. The employee wrote, and I quote directly: "We have found boys do not want girl characters on their things (eeeww girls! Yuck! Haha)." So instead of collectively smacking these boys and reminding them that they owe their very existence to women, corporations have collectively agreed to literally eliminate the relevant females from these boys' playthings. Terrific. And forget about the girls who might actually want to buy things with these female characters on them, because they literally do not exist except for maybe one or two measly pink t-shirt with their likenesses...

Lego and Disney Consumer Products are the target of a lot of my ire (largely because they have so much pull and potential, but refuse to level the playing field), but the problem is widespread. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is focused on the representation of women in movies and TV and has some great information on their research at their website, like their Myths & Facts page.

Although women make up roughly half the population and workforce, you wouldn't know from the media where female characters are outnumbered by male characters three-to-one. According to a study by the institute, only 29.2% of 5,554 speaking characters in the 122 family films they analyzed were female. This is the same 3:1 male to female ratio that has existed since 1946. Males make up three-quarters of speaking parts in children's entertainment, and 83% of film and TV characters are male. In some group scenes, only 17% of the characters are female. And even in family entertainment, the females contue to show dramatically more skin and are hypersexualized, compared to the males onscreen. From 2006-2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in the law, or in politics. A joint 2012 study from their institute and the USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative found that in prime-time TV, 78.9% of characters in STEM fields were male, while only 21.1% were female.

As a side note, here, I have to hypothesize that perpetuating these misrepresentations makes it hard for boys to grow up to respect women as equals, let alone leaders; to respect their autonomy and right to things like equal pay and equal rights and the right to the reproductive care and choices they need...

So, in light of these dismal statistics, I was super excited to read about the Disney Junior show Miles From Tomorrowland, which made a concerted effort to show strong female characters in STEM fields, specifically to help girls get interested in science. The show is a space adventure about a family who lives on a spaceship and works for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority. The mom drives the spaceship and was inspired by astronaut Yvonne D. Cagle. The older sister uses computer code to solve the problems the family encounters in space. The show's creators work with NASA, Google, and Microsoft to more authentically portray the way the family uses technology and lives in space (though it is an animated show, after all!). Google's research showed a direct link between the low rate of females in science featured in the media and the low rate of girls pursuing STEM careers. Selfishly, Google believes that efforts like this one with Disney will help create a bigger labor pool for them in the future. The bonus side effect is that it also shows boys that girls are just as smart and capable and valuable. We're definitely going to be putting it into rotation.

I also loved this take on Tinker Bell as an engineer and STEM promoter. Alice is really into the Tinker Bell movies and I always point out when Tink is engineering something. 

So this is the world we live in, that my daughters are growing up in. As they get older and more aware of and involved in pop culture (yes, already!), I can't have total control over their fashion and toy and media choices. But I can still heavily direct them. Thanks to the internet, I can curate a mom-approved selection and let them choose from those, without them being bombarded with a bunch of inappropriate options and stereotypes as we wander the aisles in a store.

And while I have absolutely nothing wrong with their preference for spinny, ruffly, fluffy dresses, or their love of Disney princesses, I want them to know that they are worth more than their appearance. I want them to know that they are the heroes of their own stories and they can engineer their own destinies while wearing whatever pink fluffiness they want. I don't have any problem with the pinkness of girls' clothes, or really even their toys. I just don't love that making the "girl" Legos and crossbows pink reinforces that girls and boys can't play together with the same things. Obviously, there are some things that girls and boys will play with differently, and girls and boys are drawn to different things (role-playing/kinetic play), but I would just really love to see more common ground for boys and girls to share than the very, very segregated and color-specific toy aisles in the big toy stores. 

I am trying to let my girls develop their own tastes and interests, and trying my very best to give them a wider range of options and experiences than our consumerist society wants to sell them. So instead of limiting their toys to dolls, dress-up, fashion/beauty, and art supplies, we buy building and engineering and science toys like play dough, blocks, trains, Duplo Legos (so far, we stick to the gender neutral sets), Goldiblox, Battat's Take-A-Part toys, remote control cars, science kitsmagnet builders, and Cuisenaire rods. I love the fact that they play with these things in their princess dresses and tutus and ballet shoes.

Alice, the remote control car-driving ballerina.
And Ivy, the fanciest airplane mechanic/pilot says, "Yeah, I do aviation #likeagirl."
In light of all this, I figured that computer coding was a logical tool for building computer literacy and competency and confidence, as well as sparking an interest in computer science and other STEM disciplines. I want my daughters to be interested in technology and confident in their ability to understand it and use it, more than just being able to navigate an iPad at age 2...

As I was trying to gather up all these articles that I've been reading lately, I came across a bunch of other articles questioning the value of computer coding for students, cautioning against using it as a cure-all for the educational woes our kids are facing in school, and pitting it against humanities studies. I certainly don't think it should be overemphasized, or relied on too heavily, especially in early education and especially not in place of music, art, reading, math, science, etc. But I definitely think it is an invaluable tool that is only going to become increasingly important in the global marketplace.

Julie Ann Crommett leads Google's effort to educate the media on computer sciences and says "Code is a mechanism to enhance anything you want to do." I completely agree, and I think computer science and technology is heavily intertwined with the arts as well, with so many digital tools and mediums for photography, film, music, art, etc. Even just having the skills to build your own website for your creative company or portfolio is valuable.  I know that the technology teams at the Disney and their Animation Studios are heavily involved in the filmmaking, supporting the artists to understand their craft and crafting new tools and technology to produce breathtakingly beautiful art that is technologically advanced lightyears beyond my capacity to comprehend. I know this is true at Pixar, and surely at the other animation and digital film studios as well. 

I like the STEM to STEAM movement, pioneered by the Rhode Island School of Design to include and incorporate art and design alongside the STEM disciplines, to integrate art and design in primary and higher education, and to influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation. I do think that art and design is highly relevant to all fields of technology and engineering, as is clear with prestigious and innovative companies like Disney and Apple and Tesla Motors

Whether or not Alice chooses to pursue a STEM career, I want her to develop a good foundation and appreciation for math, science, and computer technology before she gets to school and finds out she's not supposed to like or be good at those subjects because she's a girl. Everyone knows that reading to your babies and toddlers and preschoolers and children is very, very important. But I definitely don't think that we put the same emphasis on early math or science concepts, especially for girls. I'm not trying to push early reading or math skills, but I do make a huge effort to incorporate math concepts at every opportunity (we talk about money, fractions, addition and subtraction), and point out different scientific concepts and fields of study whenever possible (we talk about hypothesis and observations, chemistry, astronomy, physics, earth science, biology, etc.). I want to give her some tools to level the playing field before she's put at a disadvantage, and I think computer coding is a great place to start.

I also make a huge effort to draw Alice's attention to the Mighty Girls who are innovating, inventing, engineering, coding, and making scientific discoveries to make the world a better place for everyone - including the next generations of girls. At this point, I'm hoping she still thinks it's normal for girls to do these things, instead of the reality that I'm pointing out the minority. Like at the Paine Field Aviation Day last weekend, where we saw little cars built by girls from a co-ed and all girl team that compete on fuel efficiency.

It's totes OK to wear princess dresses in your race car or airplane.

We also saw several high school robotics teams that included a few girls. Alice helped me take one robot for a test drive and we chatted with the girl who was at the controls. I made sure to point out that the girl helped to write all the code for the robot, visible on the computer display at the controls. 

So that's some of the background on why I introduced coding to Alice. Just as all these articles about coding were coming to a head, Pamela Ribon skewered Barbie's computer engineering skills in a scathing post that quickly went viral. Shortly thereafter was the international Hour of Code. And that may have been where I learned that our favorite Frozen characters, Anna and Elsa, were ready to help you learn coding over at Code.Org. Their lesson is an hour long, perfect for doing the hour of code on your own time. I just loved the juxtaposition of idiot Barbie wrecking her computer next to our favorite princesses helping us write elegant code to create cool snowflakes. 

I don't remember when I fired up the first lesson for Alice, but it must have been sometime after the holidays. She begs to "do computer code" all the time, but I save it for when we need to keep quiet during Ivy's naps. I have to sit near her and read her the lesson instructions and pop-up dialog boxes, and help her decipher some of the words, but she's got a good handle on how to manipulate the blocks of code into the right order and how to navigate all the controls. We don't have a mouse, so her hands get tired from the fine-motor skills of navigating the track-pad. One of these days we might have to get her some of her own computing gear. She is just thrilled every time she gets the coding right and the computer correctly runs the instructions she's put together. She's been keen to learn typing and spelling, so she can tweet out the images she's created. She was so proud of herself when she finished the last puzzle, and immediately wanted to start over, and start experimenting with another lesson featuring Anna and Elsa as well as Baymax and Hiro from her other favorite, Big Hero 6. I really hope that she continues to be interested, because once she can read on her own, there will be no stopping her...

So, ladies and mamas, have you or your kids done your Hour of Code yet? If not, sit down with your little ones - especially your daughters - and check out some of the great resources out there. Even if they are too little to use the computer, I bet they'd get the general idea of watching you putting blocks of code together like a puzzle to watch something happen on screen. And showing your kids that you can try and try and succeed at learning something new is also hugely valuable for them. Let me know if you give it a try! 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I'm impressed! You make ME want to learn code!


I love to hear from you! Kind words only, please...