Computing with Purpose

I am increasingly angry about the pinkification of Computer Science and Engineering. Pinkification is the presentation of computing and STEM skills as being about 3D printing jewellery, drawing pretty pictures, or somehow involving fluffy animals, in a desperate attempt to interest girls. Aside from how insulting it is to assert that painting something pink and sticking a few sparkly things on it is a great way to attract girls – because we are fundamentally shallow, apparently – there are many pinkified programmes trying to attract girls to CS and, as far as I can tell, they are having very little impact on diversity in Computing and other technical fields.

This doesn’t surprise me. For years I taught at a science school and my boss insisted that we had to teach Computer Science to the year 10s through a “fun” approach – drawing pretty pictures, making robots follow lines, this sort of thing. And the single most common feedback was “why are you making me do this? It’s just not relevant to me!”

Bear in mind these were science students, and if science students think computing isn’t relevant to them, then we’re really doing something wrong. Computing is integral to science now, and I am constantly meeting scientists who lament their lack of computing skills, and tell me it’s limiting their work in the worst way.

When we finally shifted to teaching computing skills in the context of data science – using real data sets and authentic problems, giving the students the opportunity to make a real difference in the world – the change was dramatic. We studied everything from election results to microbats, from climate change to neuroscience, and the number of girls choosing to pursue further study in computing doubled (from 5 to 10 – still distressingly low, but a big step forward!), but it wasn’t just girls who got more interested. A lot of the boys could finally see the point of computing. Data Science engaged kids in computing skills in a way the “fun stuff” never did.

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You see, the lack of girls in CS is only the easily measurable side of our lack of diversity. The big problem is that we are, for the most part, only getting the types of people in computing that we already have. The stereotypical kids who are already interested in computing, have been coding more or less from birth, and who really aren’t interested in much else.

We need to motivate a much wider range of people to at least try computing, to see if it’s something they might be interested in. We also need everyone to be Data Literate so that we can think critically about data and graphs we’re shown, and so that we can engage in intelligent conversations as a society about which kinds of Data Science are ok and which ones we’re not comfortable with.

Motivation is key, but I have come to the conclusion that fun isn’t actually terribly motivating. It interests me that “fun” is often still seen as the best way to attract kids to a subject. At best, if it actually is fun, using the “fun” approach to STEM skills may introduce it as a hobby, or a fun way to spend a few hours, but it’s hardly inspiring as a career choice, because it lacks a sense of purpose. It also sells our kids painfully short – they like fun, sure, but more than anything kids today are worried about their future, and the future of the planet. They want to make a difference.

Nicky Ringland, one of the greatest change makers in Computer Science Education in Australia, recently sent a tweet that finally gave me the phrase I’ve been looking for. She said girls get very engaged in “Computing with Purpose”, and added that the bonus is you also engage more boys with this kind of computing, not just girls.

That’s it. That’s what attracted me to computing. It’s what engaged my students with Data Science, and it’s why I started the Australian Data Science Education Institute. To show teachers and students that computing has a purpose. It’s not just something that’s been randomly jammed into the curriculum. It’s not about teaching to an exam. It’s not something to do because the teacher told you to. It’s something you can actually use to understand and even change the world.

Now that is a purpose everyone can get behind!

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