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#SXSWedu: Code like a girl

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The 2015 SXSWedu Conference and Festival is in full swing in Austin, Texas. Team SmartBrief is there, bringing readers coverage of the discussions and happenings at this year’s show.

When it comes to learning to code, girls approach it differently than boys, according to Douglas Kiang, computer science teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. Douglas and his wife Mary, a computer science teacher at St. Andrews Priory, an all-girls school in Honolulu, talked to attendees about teaching girls to code in their Tuesday session, “Code like a girl! Coding by design.”

Girls want to work on projects that are meaningful, Douglas told attendees. They’re driven by altruism. “They want to know what the good is first,” he explained. “They want to help others.”

Douglas and Mary shared three strategies to help educators better teach coding to girls:

  1. Redefine the traditional approach. “We teach programming backwards,” explained Douglas. “We start at the smallest bit and work our way up.” Instead, he encourages teachers to start with what kids already know: apps. Find out what apps students use regularly and then drill down to find out why they’re easy to use. Take screenshots of different apps and have students identify common interface features, like the “Back” button. Look also at how information is organized. Get students to think and discuss all these different elements.
  2. Increase coding literacy. Remember the three Rs of literacy: reading, writing and arithmetic? In coding, Douglas explained, it’s the three Ms: “modding,” making and algorithms. “Modding” is similar to learning to read—it includes learning to read professionally written examples of code. Students may not understand everything they see, but if they’re “modding” (modifying) the code, they’re learning to modify elements in it. Next, students learn to write code. And if they want to explore further, they look into algorithms and the relative efficiency of algorithms. “The more we give basic literacy of code,” he said, “the more we understand how things work. We understand how to be makers, we understand how to use code to create interactive props or artwork and the more successful we will be.”
  3. Build things that matter. Girls want to put meaning to their work. They want to help people or support a cause. Douglas told the story of a student he’s working with now who’s creating a game about how people and communities can recover from natural disasters. The game includes a village, which gets wiped out by floods and tidal waves. Players have to create safety structures – such as sea walls around the village or a covered harbor for boats – and pay for them with in-app purchases or game credits. A portion of the money raised goes toward helping a real village in a real country that has suffered a disaster.

Girls get excited about coding when it solves a problem or serves a purpose, said Mary. “In designing things that matter we have them think more broadly or globally — beyond self, to serve a purpose,” she explained. “It’s all about finding things that matter.”

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