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Velocity Session Recap: Encouraging Girls in IT - A How to Guide

Tl;dr version: Last week at the Velocity Conference I saw a 7 year old girl (and her father) make a presentation and get a standing ovation. 

 Got your attention now?

Last week at Velocity 2014 in Santa Clara, Nordstrom Infrastructure Engineer Doug Ireton brought his seven-year-old daughter Jane to give a presentation about encouraging girls in IT. As the proud uncle to three small girls (and as a feminist to boot) I thought this talk would be well worth my while. It did not disappoint. Doug began by stating some of the research:

IT and CS are seen as a boys club - and this impacts the exposure of girls to computers even at a young age. Only 37% of women have early exposure to computers at home (vs. 63% of men). He cited studies that showed that boys are taught to be more confident around computers, and are more confident than girls, even when they have significantly less experience or knowledge than girls. Unfortunately, confidence is often confused with ability and this often results in giving males an edge in the classroom, as well as in their careers.

After discussing the background research, he turned it over to Jane to talk about how they started, and what they did:

"At first it was daunting, and I didn't want to learn," began Jane.

But they began with Robot Turtles (http://www.robotturtles.com/) to build the fundamental thought patterns for programming. From there they moved to snap circuits, and then began drag and drop programming at Code.org.

"The lessons were hard," said Jane. "I had to learn to solve the problems without help." For his part, Doug also had to learn to sit on his hands and let her figure out problems by herself. Once Jane began to solve problems on her own, she began to build confidence and get better. By the end, she was loving it and solved all 111 lessons in a few weeks. From there they moved on to Scratch, and to lessons from the MIT App Inventor. For the MIT App Inventor, Jane particularly liked that the video tutorials included female programmers. And speaking of female programmers, Doug made certain that Jane had the opportunity to shadow some female programmers at work while learning.

Eventually they undertook a big project together - to build a cat tracker using a GPS chip and Arduino board. Jane learned to solder for this, and eventually they built a functional device and successfully tracked their cat's movement around its home territory. The territory was... bigger than they had expected.

So what is next for Jane? She needs to learn to type, and then it's time to learn Ruby.

It is probably not a coincidence, and is important to note that Jane's confidence in the material showed big-time. Not only is she clearly getting the hang of programming; but she was able to present loudly and clearly to a very large group of grown-ups. I think everyone in that room was predicting great things for her in the future.

So what advice do Jane and Doug have for other parents? Doug boiled it down to 6 things you can do:

  1. Talk About Your Work in IT/CS: Talk with girls you mentor about what it's really like to work in IT and why you enjoy it
  2. Find Female Role Models (through work, female tech meet ups, developer academies for women, etc.): To counter the perception that IT is only for guys, introduce your daughter to female programmers
  3. Job Shadow a Female in IT/CS: Help the girls you mentor learn what programmers really do
  4. Teach Girls Early to Build Confidence: Don't help too much when they are problem solving! Let them gain satisfaction from coming up with their own solutions independently.
  5. Deliberate Practice: Intelligence and ability are muscles which can be developed with deliberate practice
  6. Encourage them: A recent study of 1,434 undergraduate students found that encouragement to persist was the driving factor behind female students' likelihood to choose a computing major or career -- more so than their confidence in their ability

Doug finished the talk by stressing that all kids are eager to learn when presented with age appropriate tools to do so. So go out and find them.

And about that standing ovation? It happened even before they could get to Q&A.

And it's crazy but all that clapping by all those people must have stirred up some dust or something, because I swear I got a bit of grit in my eye. They really need to keep those conference rooms cleaner...

So what can you do next? Below are some resources that Doug and Jane have kindly provided:

Robot Turtles (http://www.robotturtles.com/)
Snap Circuits (http://www.snapcircuits.net/)
Code.org (http://code.org)
Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu/)
MIT AppInventor (http://appinventor.mit.edu/explore/)
Arduino (www.arduino.cc/)
Ada Developers Academy (http://adadevelopersacademy.org/)
Girl Develop IT (http://www.girldevelopit.com/)
Black Girls Code (http://www.blackgirlscode.com/)

And finally - you can find Jane and Doug's complete presentation here:

Thanks again to Jane and Doug for a great presentation. I already have plans for some quality Robot Turtle time with my nieces...



Great write-up. Glad to hear our presentation was helpful.

You're right, Jane gained a lot of confidence from doing the presentation and I'm looking forward to how much more she can do with time and practice.

Good luck with your nieces, and thanks for taking the time to write this post.

Doug Ireton

Thanks for the great wrap-up, Jonathan. We've posted the video recording of their preso as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYoNQMysDNM&feature=youtu.be

I hope your nieces enjoy learning to program. Maybe you'll encourage them in public speaking, too! :)