Broadening the Appeal of Computing Science

I’ve often been frustrated that a broad range of learners don’t choose to continue to study CS at secondary school as they get older and it seems that it’s now a wider cause for concern (See this recent BBC News article). In 2015, for example, only 15% of entries for the new SQA Higher CS qualification and 13% of entries for Advanced Higher were female making CS in the senior phase an area with a heavy gender bias. In my own school we had an all male Higher and Advanced Higher class last year, and also this year, but this isn’t a trend that I want to encourage in future years.

As I try to do with many teaching issues, I’ve spent some time exploring existing research on the key issues and finding as much evidence of what has worked and not worked in other settings as I can. Luckily there’s some informative books, talks, research papers and reports discussing the main issues including a report compiled by Google (Women who choose Computer Science- what really matters). It’s just as well because improving diversity is an area fraught with peril and the possibility that many well meaning actions I could choose may backfire and have the opposite effect. For example, highlighting myths relating to CS so that we can challenge them might seem sensible however it’s more likely to reinforce the unfair stereotypes we’d all like to banish for good.

If actions like this are counter-productive then what is more likely to work? Although not focused at school level, we could look at some of the wider research into gender bias within particular professions that has been carried out in the last fifty years. Luckily for us a recent talk by Professor Karen Ashcraft at the National Centre for Women in IT 2015 conference did just that. Her talk gives us a powerful perspective on why certain professions effectively become mono-cultures and what we may be able to do about it.

So what is this new perspective and how might it help us to widen the appeal of CS in the senior phase? Professor Ashcraft frames her talk around the idea that where there is a strong stereotype associated with a particular profession then that profession can rapidly become much less diverse. For those who think they don’t fit the “glass slipper” of this figurative practitioner or don’t identify with them, this can mean they feel that a particular job or area of knowledge is not really their thing.

Unfortunately when it comes to IT, ICT and Computing Science popular culture hasn’t done us too many favours. In several research studies carried out in western countries a very strong stereotype emerges and it’s one that doesn’t have wide appeal. It looks as if we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place but if that were really the case we wouldn’t have classes such as Berkeley’s Beauty and Joy of Computing course that now has a diverse audience with an almost 50/50 gender split.

What’s their secret and how might I apply similar strategies to improve the situation in my own school? The key appears to be working on creating a welcoming and supportive climate in the classroom and presenting a diverse view of the field to pupils and parents. We need to create the perception that anyone prepared to put in the necessary effort can succeed and that the skills and knowledge gained can be used to improve society and not just someone’s bank balance.

For me a more diverse view means looking at how we portray computing on our school’s website and also on the display boards both inside and outside of the computing labs. These displays should show how computing science can improve lives, the wide range of people who work in the field and the many companies we have in Scotland.

Creating a supportive climate means our department should regularly use techniques that encourage collaboration and discussion such as pair programming, peer instruction and pedagogical code reviews. It also means trying to contextualise the problems and examples we use when teaching learners how to create computer based solutions. “Give them a reason to care” is something I firmly believe in but I need to take more time to translate that into better problems and exercises that students really do care about and will find interesting.

It won’t happen overnight, but I feel I’ve started on a path that I and my colleagues can follow to make Computing Science a more attractive option for everyone.

Further resources with a UK focus



Resources with an American focus