Physical Computing Increases Access to Computer Science for Female Students

By creating environments that are inclusive, collaborative, and supportive, educators can help to address the gender gap in computer science and promote greater participation and success for all students.

Accessible and inclusive
Positive school culture
Long term engagement

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In 2019, only 19% of high school students who took the AP Computer Science Principles exam were female.

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Studies show that women are more likely to engage in computer science within social and collaborative environments rather than solitary or individualistic environments.

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Gender disparity often begins at an early age and continues throughout higher education and professional careers.

Texas

The Challenge

According to the National Science Foundation, in 2020, only 22% of undergraduate computer science degrees were awarded to women. Similarly, the College Board reported that only 31% of students who took the Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science A exam in 2020 were female. These disparities are even greater for women of color and other underrepresented groups in computer science, including Black, Latinx, and Native American women.

The disparities in participation between males and females begin early, with girls being less likely to enroll in computer science courses in high school. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), in 2019, only 19% of high school students who took the AP Computer Science Principles exam were female.

These disparities can have long-term consequences, as they contribute to the underrepresentation of women in the computer science workforce. As technology continues to play an increasingly important role in all sectors of the economy, it is crucial to address these disparities and encourage greater participation of females in computer science education.

The Solution

Social interaction and support can be effective in increasing engagement and interest in computer science for girls and women. By creating environments that are inclusive, collaborative, and supportive, educators can help to address the gender gap in computer science and promote greater participation and success for all students.

Studies support the idea that social interaction effectively increases computer science engagement and interest for girls and women.

Recent studies have shown that a sense of community and social support in all-girls computer science programs promoted confidence and interest in the field from the participants. Girls were reported more likely to pursue further coursework in the field. Additionally, studies have found that women were more likely to express interest in computer science within social and collaborative environments rather than solitary or individualistic environments. These studies suggested that the preference for social contexts may reflect a desire for a sense of belonging and community within the field.

In addition, social support and mentorship were important factors in promoting persistence and success in computer science for women and underrepresented minorities. Studies have highlighted the importance of creating supportive communities and networks for women and other underrepresented groups in the field.

What is Physical Computing?

Physical computing is a type of computing that involves creating interactive physical systems by combining hardware devices such as sensors, motors, and microcontrollers with software programming. The goal of physical computing is to create interactive systems that can sense and respond to the physical world, such as robots, wearable technology, and other electronic devices.

Importance of Physical Computing

  • It teaches computational thinking: Physical computing involves problem-solving and designing solutions using computational thinking, which is a critical skill in the digital age. It involves breaking down complex problems into smaller, more manageable components and designing solutions using algorithms and data structures.
  • It promotes creativity and innovation: Physical computing encourages students to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to real-world problems. It allows them to combine their knowledge of computer science with their creativity and imagination to design and build interactive systems.
  • It provides hands-on learning opportunities: Physical computing provides students with hands-on learning opportunities that allow them to see the direct impact of their coding and design decisions. This type of experiential learning can be more engaging and meaningful than traditional classroom instruction.
  • It prepares students for the future: Physical computing is becoming increasingly important in a wide range of industries, from robotics and automation to wearable technology and the Internet of Things (IoT). By learning about physical computing, students are better prepared for the future job market and the digital economy.

Female Engagement in Computer Science Classrooms

The level of engagement of females in elementary computer science classrooms can vary depending on various factors, including the school's environment, curriculum, teaching methods, and cultural influences. However, it is important to note that there has been a historical gender gap in computer science and technology fields with females being underrepresented.

The gender gap in computer science has been a long-standing, well-documented issue. Throughout history, despite making important contributions to the field, women remain significantly underrepresented. As computers became more popular in the 1980s, there was a noticeable drop in female participation — partly because the marketing of computers was targeted toward males. In addition, stereotypes, biases, and limited access to resources have created additional barriers for women wanting to break into the field.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing push to change this narrative. Efforts are underway to encourage girls' interest in computer science, challenge stereotypes, and create more supportive environments. The goal is to make the field more diverse and inclusive so that everyone has a fair shot at contributing and succeeding in this exciting industry.

This gender disparity often begins at an early age and continues throughout higher education and professional careers.

One way to address the gender gap is to increase access for females to participate in physical computing opportunities.

Physical Computing in Classrooms

Physical computing has become increasingly popular in recent years, and many schools are incorporating it into their curriculum. Some schools may have dedicated makerspaces or technology labs where students can experiment with physical computing, while others may use classroom sets of kits or online resources to teach physical computing concepts. It is clear that physical computing education is becoming more prevalent in elementary schools, and efforts are being made to increase access and opportunities for students to learn about this important field.

In Texas, Kiera Elledge, a district STEM coordinator, has implemented physical computing using Unruly Splats in three elementary schools. According to Ellege, teaching physical computing with Unruly Splats not only levels the playing field for the girls in her district, but the girls take the lead in using and learning with Unruly Splats.

“Teachers are terrified of Splats and anything computer science because there’s constant changes, and Unruly Splats gives kids the opportunity to take ownership and lead the learning,” — Kiera Elledge

Her district has shown that computer science and Unruly Splats can enhance classroom curriculum and participation.

What’s Next?

There are many approaches to increase female participation with physical computing. Providing opportunities for hands-on learning, building confidence and self-efficacy, creating non-threatening environments, connecting to real world applications, and challenging gender stereotypes are some ways to break down barriers to access.

Physical computing involves building and programming physical objects, such as robots or wearable technology. This type of hands-on learning can be particularly appealing to females, who may be more interested in creating tangible and practical projects.

Research has shown that females are more likely to experience feelings of self-doubt and low self-efficacy in STEM fields, including computer science. Physical computing can provide opportunities for females to build confidence in their abilities and see tangible evidence of their skills and accomplishments. In some traditional computer science classrooms, the culture can be male-dominated and competitive, which can be intimidating for females. Physical computing can provide a more collaborative and inclusive environment where females can work on projects with peers and feel supported in their learning.

Physical computing can help females see the relevance and practical applications of computer science in real-world contexts, which can increase their interest and motivation in the subject. By providing opportunities for females to engage in physical computing, we can challenge stereotypes and promote a more diverse and inclusive culture in computer science education.

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