Dr Reena Pau: Helping to narrow the gender gap in Computing

I had a very constructive informal meeting with Dr Reena Pau at the University of Southampton today. We discussed my project to encourage more girls to study GCSE Computer Science, particularly in the next academic year.

Survey Data

The most obvious way to measure the impact of any intervention will be to see how many girls in my school actually choose to study Computing at GCSE level next year.

In school there are many factors that influence a students’ choice of GCSE subjects, and I would like to additionally conduct a simple survey that identifies how likely girls are to choose GCSE Computing. I would like to complete this survey before and after any intervention strategies that I use to raise awareness of Computer Science as a subject.

Reena is an academic with lots of experience of research, and was able to give me some general advice on how best to create a survey that will generate meaningful data. For example, I will use the “focus group” of identified girls to help me create the survey questions (I do not know the full list of reasons why they might or might not be considering studying GCSE Computing). I must also consider how I would like to present my survey data when designing the questions.

Intervention Planning

Reena has also helped me create an outline plan of intervention strategies and events for my focus group of Year 8 girls.

Initial Meeting & Survey Design: I will meet with the focus group of students (over lunch at school) to explain the nature of this project, and to ask them questions that will help with my survey design.

Focus Group Discussion: Reena has kindly offered to help me conduct the survey, and also facilitate a discussion with the focus group. During this discussion we hope to better understand what girls know about Computer Science already, and perhaps raise their awareness of the subject and its importance/relevance in the modern world.

Parent Information Evening: Reena has also kindly offered to help me speak directly to parents about this project, and the value of Computer Science as a subject. Her research tells us that parents have a large influence over the subjects that students choose to follow at all levels (including GCSE).

University Visit: A final intervention idea is a one-day visit to the University of Southampton. During this day a subset of the focus group girls (numbers limited by minibus seating!) would tour the University and take part in a workshop looking at wearable technology. For many children this will be their first experience of Higher Education, and so a tour will be a brief insight into a potential future. The wearable tech workshop will hopefully help to reinforce the message that Computer Science is a multi-disciplinary subject that has relevance in lots of different areas.

The next step is to calendar each of these events!

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Narrowing the Gender Gap: Encouraging girls to take GCSE Computing

As part of a Middle Leader Development Programme I am currently enrolled in, I have been asked to identify some work I can do at school under the title “Narrowing the Gap”.

Since we have implemented so many changes to the KS3 & KS4 ICT curriculum this year (following the Wolf review of vocational qualifications and the introduction of GCSE Computing) it is not going to be possible to compare student attainment data between this year and the last.

As an alternative I have decided to focus instead on narrowing the “gender gap” that many schools and colleges witness in Computer Science. As I have previously posted, the numbers of girls choosing our GCSE Computing course at school is very limited, but those that have are thoroughly enjoying it.

I hope to encourage more girls to choose the GCSE Computing course this year as they move from Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 4. My initial plan is divided into four sections:

  1. Identification
  2. Intervention
  3. Communication
  4. Measurement

Firstly I will use data to identify a group of girls in Key Stage 3 that I think would enjoy/do well at the GCSE Computing course. Retrospective data analysis shows that the students who opt for GCSE Computing have high scores for non-verbal reasoning & numeracy, and so this will the initial basis for identification.

Secondly, I will work with industry and academic outreach contacts to arrange some taster activities that will give the girls an insight into Computer Science, and the possible career paths that it could lead to.

Communication with parents is important, and I will use email to inform them of this project and to give some details of the taster activities. I might also arrange a face-to-face information session for parents if time allows.

Hopefully these interventions will increase the number of girls who choose to take GCSE Computing from September 2013 (this will be the primary measure of success). I will also develop a focus group survey to see if the intervention strategies have modified opinions of Computer Science (the practical limitations of a school timetable and the new English Baccalaureate could prevent even enthusiastic students from choosing this GCSE).

This is not the finalised plan, I still have to complete a proper MLDP Action Planning exercise and formally agree it with my headteacher, but hopefully this will at least attempt to address a fairly widespread issue. Watch this space!

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Girls and Computer Science

I am really pleased that so many students at Perins are choosing to follow the OCR GCSE Computing course. Here are the numbers in each GCSE year (the school runs GCSE courses over 3 years):

Year 11: 20 boys / 0 girls

Year 10: 25 boys / 1 girl

Year 9: 38 boys / 2 girls

This is an optional subject, so the increase in numbers year on year is very positive. It is impossible to ignore the gender divide though, and so this academic year I hope to do something to encourage more girls to study Computer Science at our school.

There has always been an argument that girls simply don’t want to do GCSE Computing, but I now have some evidence to the contrary. The girls in these classes are doing very well, and I received this amazing email from a parent recently:

Dear Mr Gardner

My daughter is really enjoying her Computing GSCE and is thinking about a possible career in IT. I wondered if you know whether there are any opportunities to do work experience at IBM Hursley, and if so, who would be the best person to contact? Thanks very much.

There is hope, and so I am going to develop some intervention strategies over the next few months to see if we can encourage more girls into GCSE Computing. Once they are in, I’m sure they’ll be hooked!

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GCSE Computer Science: OCR or AQA?

GCSE Computer Science: OCR or AQA?

I thought I should share my limited experience of the two GCSE Computer Science courses that many UK schools are considering for first delivery in September 2012.

At the start of this academic year (September 2011) we introduced OCR GCSE Computing at Perins. Since then, the AQA GCSE in Computer Science has been accredited.

I will add more to this blog post as I explore in more detail the differences and similarities between these qualifications, but for now here are links to specimen examination papers. Something that both courses have in common is a 90 minute terminal exam, and I think it is worth looking at these papers to get an overview of the topics that students will need to understand:

OCR GCSE Computing (specimen exam paper)

AQA GCSE Computer Science

Can you remember how to convert denary to binary? I couldn’t when I first looked at this paper 12 months ago (and nor could many of my friends who are Computer Science graduates and industry specialists!) – but now I am comfortable that both of my classes would get full marks on a similar question.

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Giving up a smartphone for lent

Over the February half-term break I spent an amazing week in Morocco. For a variety of reasons I didn’t take my iPhone 3GS with me.

When I got back and switched the iPhone back on, it got stuck in some kind of infinite reboot loop. When I tried to force it off/on again it got stuck in recovery mode, the mode in which it has remained ever since! Even the Apple Genius Bar can’t restore it.

So I decided to go without the iPhone for lent (which started the day after the phone died), instead choosing to use an old Nokia handset that does little nothing more than make phone calls and send SMS text messages.

This has been an interesting “experiment” – I think many people are probably unaware of how much a smartphone has changed the way they interact with people, particularly those in front of them! I was certainly the sort of person to get a mobile phone out in a pub (for example) – and now I find myself slightly annoyed when this is done by others.

I have quite enjoyed being something of a “ludite” for the past few weeks, particularly when doing “old-fashioned” things like asking an actual person for directions!

I have already decided that if I have another smartphone I will turn all notifications off except for calls and SMS. Interactions with real people deserve my undivided attention. Personal or professional email accounts and online networks do not!

This article in the Telegraph today also highlights how this (not always great) change in behaviour has crept up on many people:

Now that lent is over, am I rushing out to buy a new iPhone 4S? Not quite. I feel as though a few more weeks (at least) of “cold turkey” can only be a good thing.

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Computer Science vs Information Technology vs Digital Literacy

I was inspired to put my thoughts down on virtual paper by a recent blog post from Joe Roy. He included the image (below) from the 2012 Royal Society report “Shut down or restart?” that suggests dividing ICT into “Computer Science”, “Information Technology” and “digital literacy”.

Image source: Royal Society 2012

The more I consider this debate, the more I tend to consider “digital literacy” and “Computer Science” as discrete subjects.

Driver vs Mechanic

If I use the (sloppy but convenient) “driver vs mechanic” analogy; you don’t have to understand the technical workings of a car to drive one well, but a little technical understanding could help you in some circumstances. Some people might become talented drivers, others might become talented mechanics, and some might become talented engineers.

Driver vs Mechanic: All of the people pictured are highly skilled, but in different ways.

What could/should schools do?

Using the driver/mechanic analogy, here are 3 ideas relevant to where we are now:

  1. Schools teach students to “drive” (and drive carefully/responsibly). This is “digital literacy“.
  2. Schools teach students “basic mechanics” (eg. how to top up the oil, change a fuse, change a headlamp bulb). This is part of “Computer Science” but might be called “Information Technology“.
  3. Schools offer those children who have a passion for “mechanics” the opportunity to learn more (eg. how a combustion engine works). This is a specific qualification in Computer Science.

There is no doubt that Computer Science understanding will increase a student’s digital literacy (eg. understanding HTML could help students when embedding video from one webpage into another).

Do schools actually need to make this distinction clear to children (particularly in the early stages from Key Stages 1 to 3)? Perhaps they just need to cover digital literacy and a bit of Computer Science in compulsory lessons, with an option for children to take Computer Science further (GCSE and beyond) if they wish?

Back to the original question; what do we call the subject? Since no-one outside of education has ever heard the term ICT*, my personal preference would be “Information Technology“.

but I’m happy to stick with “ICT” for now, at least up to GCSE level…

* Hideous generalisation, but prove me wrong?

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Creativity in Schools (and how ICT might fit in)

I had an interesting discussion with my better half this evening about ADHD. She works at a local Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) office. When one family missed an appointment to discuss a child and ADHD today, the clinical psychologist joked “everything is probably fine during the school holiday, he will be running around outside.”

This inspired me to show her Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk titled “Do schools kill creativity?” which includes the inspiring story of Gillian Lynne, a fidgeting school-child who would not sit still, and went on to become an internationally successful choreographer:

I was flattered recently when the assistant head in charge of pastoral care said that classroom assistants felt my lessons engaged “difficult” children in one of our Year 7 classes. As much as I would like to take the credit for being a truly inspirational person or expert classroom manager, I suspect it was the engaging nature of the work we were doing that was motivating the students to “behave” (see a separate future blog post on ripping the guts out of a computer).

There is a lot of discussion at the moment of what ICT will look like in UK schools in the medium term future. My current thinking is in three parts:

  1. Schools should provide a baseline of digital literacy skill for all children (basic digital communication skills, esafety awareness, etc).
  2. Schools should give students the opportunity to learn using technology as a tool.
  3. Students should be given a “taste” of Computer Science (particularly programming) and an opportunity to specialise in this area if it turns out to be “something they are good at.”

Many of my Year 8 students have really enjoyed a recent project working with SCRATCH programming software. I was particularly impressed with the work of one of my “bottom set” Year 8 boys (incidentally diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD). He has managed to develop his own pseudo-3D game engine to create first-person-shooter (FPS) games!

I have started teaching GCSE Computing to two classes this year (one in Year 9, another in Year 10) and many students in these classes seem to be really inspired by what they are learning (again, probably more because of the subject than the teacher!).

Perhaps the new focus on Computer Science in schools will help a large minority of students “find out what they are good at”?

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Twitter Test

I would like to set the new Perins school website to “tweet” when a news story is added. This is a test from my personal wordpress account (with schoolblogger) and my personal twitter account.

Using the “WP to Twitter” plugin for wordpress.

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Computing At Schools – Guildford Hub Meeting

A late but inspiring evening spent at the University of Surrey for the Guildford Hub Meeting of Computing At School (CAS). Some of the highlights were…

1) A demonstration of the educational java development environment “Greenfoot” from project project developer Neil Brown. He made it look very easy!

2) The opportunity to have an informal chat with Emma Mulqueeny of Young Rewired State. This was a particular highlight for me because I really enjoyed her contributions to the Guardian “Tech City Talk” podcast (as described in my previous blog post!).

If I can find the time and (more importantly) energy I would like to do a few constructive things in the near future to help the “getting kids coding” movement…

- Find out if there is a Hampshire Hub Meeting for Computing At School!

- Take part in (or organise!) a “Hack Day” event to get more kids coding in my local area

- Promote hack events and Young Rewired State to my talented GCSE Computing students

- Investigate links between local employers and school (eg. IBM Hursley Park)

- Create some tech career case-study videos to inspire students (abusing my informal links to Multiplay and Lionhead Studios)

If you didn’t listen to the Guardian Tech City Talk podcast, please do!

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Guardian Tech Weekly podcast: Tech City Talk – Skills and Education

I often listen to this interesting podcast, but this week’s show (the first “Tech City Talk” episode) could not be more relevant to ICT teachers!


In this 40 minute podcast from Imperial College London, a panel discusses the role of ICT and Computing in UK education and how it might be changed to better expand the UK’s digital economy in the future.

Included on the panel are David Willetts MP (Minister of State for Universities and Science), Prof Jeff Magee (Principle of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College),Dan Crow (CTO, Songkick) and Emma Mulqueeny (Rewired State andYoung Rewired State).

This is a really interesting discussion that anyone interested in “teaching kids to code” should listen to, and I have saved the podcast as an MP3 file in case the live site version becomes unavailable (contact me if you would like a copy).

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