Motivating Pre-Teen Girls to Learn How to Code

By Jenn Beecham

If you ask an 11-year-old girl, “Do you want to help stop bullying?” “Do you want to stop deadly diseases?” or “Do you want to feed the homeless?” you’ll hear the answer: “How can I help? Where do I start?”

If you ask her to start a computer science class next year in school and you’ll hear: “Do you think I know enough math for that?” “I don’t think I’ll be good at that” or “Will that me me look less cool?”

She has the confidence to save the world, but for some reason something is holding her back from “Hello World.”

The Gender Stereotype

There has been a lot of buzz on gender stereotyping and what kids think of when they assign genders to certain careers and activities. Always has since featured its famous “Like a Girl” commercial on many venues, challenging what it means to be a woman.

Watch the brand new unstoppable #LikeAGirl video. Join Always in our epic battle to keep girls' confidence high during puberty and beyond. Using #LikeAGirl as an insult is a hard knock against any adolescent girl. And since the rest of puberty's really no picnic either, it's easy to see what a huge impact it can have on a girl's self-confidence.

In a survey of elementary-aged girls attending one of our workshops, we asked some open-ended questions about who they thought of as a computer expert. We got several "Bill Gates," “my dad,” a few “my brother” and some generic answers like “hacker.” No one mentioned a female figure. We asked them what they thought a computer expert could do and most were centered around solving problems. Yet even though they were problem solvers, there was a disconnect that they too could solve problems with a computer.

Computer Science Completing Part of the Puzzle

Helping a girl identify a personal problem that she sees her or her peers face every day inspires her to solve it. Providing her a team of friends gives her the community and support she needs. And teaching her the skills of computer science empowers her to execute on her solution.

Girls are interested in solving problems more so than just learning a pure skill for the sake of learning it. In a Generation STEM survey from the Girl Scouts, it became apparent that over 2/3 of girls surveyed liked to build things, pull apart and put them together, find out how things work and do hands-on projects.

Why does purpose drive motivation to succeed? Research from Stanford points to a sampling of hundreds of high school students who were asked to read a few paragraphs about how foundations learned in school can help in “bettering society.” The students were then asked to write a paragraph or two on how they could apply it to their own life. The students who were part of this study saw a rise in GPA and overall academic success. It could be seen that once a student saw a problem as their own, they were more likely to put pieces together in their head. The student did not see the skills as something meaningless taught at them but more as something that could help them in the future. As one student put it, “Science will give me a good base for my career in environmental engineering. I want to be able to solve our energy problems.”

The Story of Lila

Lila is a middle school student with a curiosity for researching the causes of diseases. As she treks her way through middle and high school her school gives her the tools to develop her science background. Computer classes are offered as electives that she is encouraged to take, but Lila does not see the need for them immediately.

As Lila enters college, she realizes that there are many technology solutions out there to analyze scientific data and generate the answers she may need. Lila decides to pursue computer science on the side but faces obstacles on many fronts. Her advisor warns her that her lack of prior experience may make the classes difficult, and does not provide much support for learning them. Lila accepts the challenge and continues. Her classroom is male-dominated, and while they are friendly, she does not always feel like she belongs. She receives less attention from the teaching assistant when she wants help on the assignments. She finds herself discouraged and considers abandoning learning this skill altogether.

Helping the Blind Navigate a New Space

12-year-old Grecia Cano started middle school with her friend Andres Salas. While the first day of class may have involved a little bit of getting lost in a new building for Grecia, for Andres the challenge would last for weeks. Andres was blind and any new building took weeks of memorizing direction and spaces to navigate. Even then, any changes to the space and obstacles would constantly present a challenge.

Grecia wanted to help him. One day her teacher Maggie Bolado mentioned the Verizon Innovative App Challenge to her class, and Grecia already had a inspired idea. Together with the help of her friends Kayleen, Cassandra, Jacquelyne, Janessa and Caitlin, they created Hello Navi. Prior to this moment, none of the girls knew how to code. With help and lessons from programmers at MIT Media Lab, these girls were able to put together an app that could take a blueprint of a new building and use step-by-step voice to guide a blind person through the building.

The app not only brought these girls together but as Andres described it, “I have adopted six new sisters, because they care for me and made this happen for me.”

Today Hello Navi technology is being implemented in many other schools to aid their disabled students.

Lila Saves the World

Just as Lila is about to give up on programming, she meets a mentor who believes in her. She pushes her to see the end goal of her skill, and to not get stuck in the day-to-day challenges of learning programming concepts. Lila soon learns enough coding to manipulate data to understand the genetic code of different HIV viruses.

As she continues to fulfill her lifelong dream of understanding the cause of diseases, she picks up coding on the way. Her determination to cure AIDS drives her to unfold a computer program that can predict all the ways the virus can mutate. Her research becomes utilized by other scientists to find a vaccine against HIV. Lila saves the world.

Education through Social Impact

The story of Lila is more plausible than wishful thinking. Rather than just teaching girls STEM and bringing awareness to the subject, the goal should be showing these girls how STEM can help solve problems they care about.

Rather than just teaching girls STEM and bringing awareness to the subject, the goal should be showing these girls how STEM can help solve problems they care about.

We’ve seen in our classes that just asking girls what they want the world to be aware of can lead them to learn basic HTML in an hour and create a website. Their determination to put up as many links, self-written articles and images as possible in order to generate the message they want everyone to hear naturally brought them to learn how to make headers, bodies, links and style sheets. For us, framing the class as “Social Impact” rather than “HTML” was enough to take the edge off and still achieve effective learning in the girls.

To read more inspirational stories about girls (and boys!) changing the world through code, try the links below:

  • Enhancing a Disabled Student’s Learning Experience – At E.H. Markle Middle School, a group of six 8th grade students developed Voice Notes+. Their app allows students with disabilities to easily use their mobile phones to record lectures and customize the notes that are recorded.
  • Helping the Thirsty Gather Water – Six 12- and 13-year-old girls form one of Asia’s biggest slums decided they needed to solve their village’s water gathering problem. In the village the neighborhood communal tap often saw long lines and arguments over who got to draw water. The app they created allowed members of the community to sign up for times to gather water, and this written record would stop disputes over who was there first.