Closing Digital and Gender Gaps in Coding: Getting Girls to Byte, Part II

What made you get into coding?

When I was at school, I actually had an interest in computer science, but I was turned off it by the image of the subject – it was not really a subject that I thought I could get involved with. I had one female friend who was also ‘into’ it and I remember her teaching me some simple HTML at college and thinking I was some sort of God for being able to create my own websites.


Fast forward to early 2014 and rumours of the new computing curriculum were bubbling up so I took it upon myself to apply for Picademy, the free training run by Raspberry Pi – having the opportunity to experiment and get hands on with some digital making and physical computing and I was hooked. Just the simple act of turning on an LED using some code blocks had me hypnotised. Add in the incredible, supportive community surrounding all things Raspberry Pi and I knew I had to get involved!


In the last four years, there has been this incredible explosion of great resources for physical computing like micro:bit, CodeBug, Crumble, pi-top, Kano to name a few, which make it really easy to get started and have a go at some really innovative projects.


There are also great events like PiWars in Cambridge, where you build a robot to compete in the event and 9/10 everyone’s robot breaks, crashes or fails to succeed, but instead of this being a problem, everyone jumps in and helps each other or thinks of solutions for next time.


I think that having a real-life goal for computing can make it so much more interesting – doing something for the sake of doing it is pointless, but if you have to build a device to help grandma do her shopping then suddenly there is a reason for learning what a conditional loop is and how to use it.


How can we close the digital gender gap when it comes to coding?

We need to work on promoting positive role models that are ‘real life’ and getting existing role models to support and promote computer science. The trouble is that a lot of women who are successful in computer science and other STEM subjects, don’t realise that they are important and inspiring to younger women and so wouldn’t think to put themselves out there or visit schools to talk about what they do!


Women like Carrie Anne Philbin need raising in the public eye – Carrie Anne presented the Computer Science modules for popular US YouTube Channel Crash Course and she regularly talks about and supports teachers and young coders, but so few people outside those ‘in the know’ know who she even is.


We also need more female computer science teachers, but we face the same problem as with general uptake – a lot of women just assume they won’t be good enough – often when I’m training teachers I come across women who genuinely think that they won’t be able to do it because they’re not men and are pleasantly surprised by how easy and natural it is for them!

Which organisations would you recommend – for schools and parents?


I’m a big fan of physical computing so I’d that schools need to send a teacher to Picademy! Raspberry Pi offers free training to teachers and it’s so interesting and inspiring. They’re not trying to convince you that Raspberry Pi is the best tool for teaching, instead, they’re trying to give you some confidence by using Pi and to appreciate that coding and physical computing isn’t as tricky as you might have previously though.


For home users, there are some great books for using Raspberry Pi and the Pi Website has some good places to start.


Part of the Raspberry Pi Foundation are Coder Dojo and Code Club, which are both clubs aimed at supporting young people with coding. Code Club is great for schools as the resources are easy to follow and they’ll even help you find a real life developer who can come in and help support your sessions. The Code Club resources are aimed at 9-13 year olds and range from Scratch right through to Python with projects that work on any computer as well as specific projects for both Raspberry Pi and micro:bit.


Coder Dojo is a much more independent learning session – a lot of groups run monthly, but it varies by region and the idea is that you can join in with workshops or work with a group on something independent whilst being supported by mentors. The nice thing about Coder Dojo is that you’re likely to meet some people of the same age with similar interests.


I also think the micro:bit has some really great resources – their early collaboration with the BBC means that they have projects, which link directly to CBBC shows and things that young people would be interested in (link to BBC and Micro:bit partnership here).


I also really love the work being done by the National STEM Centre in York. They offer ‘free’ training both in their centre and around the UK (there is usually a cost for each workshop, but then you can apply for a bursary which covers the costs completely). I’ve done some Scratch training around the UK on behalf of the National STEM centre and I know they offer some other incredible sessions too!

What software / hardware would you recommend for students?


In terms of coding, there are two types of languages – block-based and text-based. We tend to start off with block-based languages like Scratch or Blockly and then move on to a text language. Globally, there are three text based languages that are popular in schools which are Python, Javascript and Ruby. My experience is that Python is the most popular language in the UK and I have to admit that it’s my preferred language. Once you’ve wrapped your head around one text language, it becomes easier to understand more so it’s always a good idea to choose a friendly one to start.


I’m a huge fan of Sonic Pi as a covert way to teach coding – Sam Aaron has created his software specifically for schools and you simply type ‘code’ to import samples and play music. Sam has also created a sort of ‘pro’ version of Sonic Pi which he uses to play AlgoRaves – club nights where he live-codes his music as he goes along. It’s definitely worth having a google because it sounds incredible! (More info here on algoraves and algorithmic dance culture in this TEDx Talk).


Hardware-wise, you can’t go wrong with a Raspberry pi, but if you want something a bit more simple, I love micro:bit, CodeBug and Crumble as a sort of introduction to physical computing. You can still add on things like LEDs and buttons, but these micro-controllers can only hold one program at a time which needs to be dragged over from a computer!


To see some inspiration contemporary female role models in coding, you can see a blog by Cat here – although I would definitely add her to the list, wouldn’t you?


by Nicole Ponsford