To Code or Not to Code – Why neither is the answer to getting more girls interested in STEM fields

Countless research studies and initiatives have focused on our inability to attract female students to STEM fields. The percentages for women in Engineering has only budged by a few percentage points in the past few decades since I graduated with an Engineering degree. This summary from the National Girls Collaborative does a great job of laying out all of the statistics from K-12 through college and into the workforce. Their estimate of women making up 15% of the Engineering workforce is actually generous compared to some others that range from 11-15%.

When you consider that the challenges of the future will require highly innovative solutions, this lack of diversity is alarming. All innovation experts point out that diversity is a key factor in enhancing creativity. Katherine Phillips states that “… if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations.” (Scientific American)

Everyone is aware of the issue, but it often seems that few have followed any real process in defining the problem. We simply “try” solutions.  Clearly we cannot afford to give up the creative potential of half the world’s population. The real question is what makes girls lose interest in STEM or even fail to ever become interested in it. The codechallenge lies in increasing and maintaining that engagement. But is the best solution we have to teach coding? Is that the real technological challenge that we face moving forward? And are we being fair in putting resources into coding as the way to attract more girls to STEM?

Coding is definitely a powerful tool, but it is a tool. You use it to program and develop apps, but it does not identify what apps you need and what technology must be developed to better meet human needs. You don’t need coding for that higher level approach. You need vision, creativity, critical thinking, the ability to communicate and collaborate, and strong problem solving skills. You need to be able to engineer and you need to use many of the skills that young children have naturally. You need to make connections, think laterally, and consider systems impacts. Sequential, step-by-step thinking will not help students to envision the big picture that the world presents. Teaching coding and expecting technological innovation is like teaching spelling and expecting a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

And yet, many schools, districts, and states seem to think coding, particularly for girls, is the answer to preparing students for the future. It becomes their “STEM initiative”.  In reality, it prepares the factory workers of the future. Henry Ford said that, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Coding creates faster programmers, but it does little to create those who can imagine the technologies that will improve our lives. It does not take us to the next level or allow us to envision new ideas.

One of the more valid answers to the question of young women leaving STEM fields is that it does not engage them. The effort that it takes to move ahead as a minority in the field is not worth the final reward. And if that reward is more apps, it probably isn’t. But look at the progress women have made in fields like medicine and law. These are careers that allow them to interact with and help others. They are areas where problem solving is the norm and an understanding of the patient or client is critical. We need to convince girls and young women that engineers can help people and make the world a better worldplace. Confining our solution to the diversity issue in STEM to practices like coding limits the creativity and talent present in every young child to a world of steps and sequences. It will do little to bring more girls and creative thinkers into a world that is increasingly dependent on innovation. The solution we should all be prototyping should showcase the relevance of math and science in the engineering of a better future. If we embrace the true interconnectedness of STEM and stop supporting silos of learning or mastery of specific routine skills, the real innovators will show up in all of our classrooms.

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