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Breaking down gender barriers to elementary coding

5 min read

Career-Technical Education

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Introducing computer programming to elementary students is undoubtedly a tall order. While considering the opportunity to enter my students in a national robotics competition, it was not only a potential lack of student interest or funding that held me back from joining, it was fear of my own lack of expertise in computer programming. How was I to set an example for my students to be fearless explorers in STEM if I myself was apprehensive?

Thankfully, it was my mother’s words that encouraged me to seize the opportunity that would eventually transform my team of six girls into ambitious and open-minded students: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

With little experience — and just enough courage — I enrolled an unnamed, not-yet-selected team of students in the Wonder League Robotics Competition.

A secret mission

My first challenge was finding six students willing to subject their novice skills to the eyes of students, educators and competition judges from across the country.

I needed risk-takers who could stay after school to work, which led me to our afterschool program, a place for students whose parents work and are in need of a safe place to stay. When I first shared the opportunity with the students, not one took strong interest in the competition.

I gave much thought to the incentives that would encourage students to join, and arrived at the idea of introducing the team as a “secret club.” The group of six fifth-grade girls was hooked at the thought of having exclusive access to robots Dash and Dot, and that their project would be entirely kept a secret.

Because I had existing relationships with the students from library visits and other library programs, I was able to draw on those experiences to gain their trust. I emphasized that we would all be learning together: They would learn from me, and I would learn from them. This mutual learning experience served as the foundation for our journey.

That’s when we decided on a name that reflected what we shared in common as an all-girl team, “The Coding Chicks.”

Decoding challenges through collaboration

The most difficult part of the series of seven coding challenges was the first mission, which simply required the team to drive Dash straight ahead across a grid and make sounds at various intervals. Despite countless trials, the girls could not seem to master the task.

Unable to step-in and guide them toward the correct coding sequence, I shared words of encouragement until they completed the task through pure trial-and-error.

By the fourth mission of the competition, the skills of the Coding Chicks drastically improved, and others were taking notice. Occasional library space reservations required the girls to take their project and 9 ft. by 9 ft. coding mat out into the hallway, revealing their secret to a handful of teachers and students.

With more confidence and skill built up, the group of girls soon reached a new challenge: sharing tasks. The students who had no interest in coding at the beginning of the school year where consistently the ones resetting robot Dash on the mat, leaving control over the programming in the hands of the more experienced students.

I gathered the team for a group chat to introduce collaboration. Through facilitating open discussion, the students were able to understand the importance of each member’s role in the group in gaining coding experience and bringing new ideas to mind.

Stepping into peer-leadership roles

After working daily on competition challenges, the team completed the seven missions earlier than expected. I encouraged the students to revisit earlier missions to learn from their previous mistakes. Without hesitation, they agreed. It was this moment when I realized the Coding Chicks’ newfound willingness to approach new challenges.

The Coding Chicks were ready to introduce computer programming to the rest of their classmates shortly after submitting video of the team’s seven completed challenges. The changes I saw within the team members were astounding. I watched them take lead in helping other students solve problems together, a truly priceless moment for an educator.

From after-school program to future female engineers

From inexperienced beginnings, to being named the second-place team in the competition, the Coding Chick’s journey resulted in genuine interest in STEM and a contagious enthusiasm for learning. Some students are even considering the possibility of pursuing a future career in computer programming or engineering.

No matter the adversities students may face, I learned how to nudge students outside their comfort zone. By being supportive and only stepping in to facilitate discussion, the Coding Chicks were able to take ownership in their successes.

As careers in STEM continue to grow in a predominately male industry, I hope this experience will give the Coding Chicks the confidence and ability to approach new challenges in the uncertain future of today’s youngest learners.

Cynthia Cooksey is a librarian at Perez Elementary in McAllen, Texas.

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