Mr Shane Skillen, Director of Digital Pedagogies
It’s 8.50 am: Year 7 students file eagerly in to their Technologies class. They place laptops on the work benches before donning their aprons and safety glasses. They have already tied up their hair, removed watches and jewellery and in a short time they will be filing, drilling, soldering and testing circuits. Some will be comparing their project with their 3D sketches digitised on their laptops, others will be checking dimensions and making note of particular fit and finishes of the various components. Next door, a group of Year 10 students are designing a ‘user experience’ for their own fictional startup business. They will be contemplating the use of the laser cutter or vacuum former to create prototype designs to showcase in a multimodal presentation that encompasses everything from video, web and print to pitching their ‘business’ through a crowdfunding website or to venture capitalists.
These girls are doing what tech-savvy women have always done. The gender gap in technologies is a recent phenomenon, and the opportunity to address and fix it is there for today’s young women to embrace, just as it was for Ada Lovelace. Lovelace was a British mathematician who in 1842 documented the first algorithm intended to be solved by a machine (Wolfram, 2015). A hundred years later, the ENIAC machine (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was recognised as the first general purpose computing device, and the ongoing programming was entrusted to an all-female programming team comprising four programmers and a trainer.
Throughout the early days of computing, right up until the early 1980s, computer science was almost gender neutral with an estimated 40–45 per cent of the workforce being female. This is impressive when the workforce representation of women in the USA was sitting around 30 per cent (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000) and in stark contrast to 2013 where it is estimated that women made up a mere 11 per cent of programmers (The Guardian, 2016). There are numerous stories from the early days of technology as we know it such as that of US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a computer scientist and mathematician. The Rear Admiral apparently coined the terms ‘bug’ and ‘debug’ after an incident which had confused the team involved in programming Harvard University’s Mark II calculator. After inspection Ms Hopper found a moth (read ‘bug’) and promptly removed it (read ‘debug’) allowing the calculator to resume functioning as expected (Computerworld Magazine, 2011). It is little wonder that women gravitated towards these careers given the exemplary role models they could aspire to.
This year the Australian Government has announced a significant policy focus on innovation. They are serious about it; it even has its own website: Innovation.gov.au. The policy is broad and endeavors to develop and foster start-up culture, entrepreneurship, business, research, growth and diversity in tertiary institutions, and investor confidence through incentives (Australian Government, 2016). The highlight for us is their focus on young Australians and, in particular, creating real opportunities for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). On their National Innovation and Science Agenda Website, the Australian Government states that ‘only one in four IT graduates and fewer than one in ten engineering graduates are women’, and that women account for only ‘around one quarter of the STEM workforce overall’ (Australian Government, 2016). The government aims to support teachers through the implementation of the Digital Technologies curriculum; to develop digital literacies and lure STEM professionals, including ICT professionals, into our classrooms. This will be a boon for the youth of Australia.
The Technologies Studies faculty at Brisbane Girls Grammar School has embraced this strategy for some time already. The Faculty has integrated professional presentations from industry, role-modelling best current practice relating to ICTs into its curriculum. The Faculty has had a long association with Cutting Edge (a content studio for post-production VFX) and business communications and partnerships with River City Labs (a co-working community and startup/entrepreneurial hub for technology), Gulimba (an Indigenous creative agency which specialises in a diverse range of digital and design communication projects) and Joseph Mark (an Australian-founded international design company). The Faculty has also played a key role in implementing design thinking methodologies into curriculum. The introduction of these methodologies into the curriculum evolved from work with the ‘Thinker in Residence’ program in 2014. Staff also presented on the topic of design thinking at key technology conferences in Sydney and Brisbane last year.
STEM literacy in our schools is another key policy that offers direct and tangible benefits for young Australians. The result of this will be to place Australia in competitive standing with rival nations. One way it aspires to achieve this is through supporting academic competitions locally, and by helping Australian competitors travel to compete at international academic competitions. Again, Brisbane Girls Grammar School has significant representation and a rich history across a range of academic competitions such as Young ICT Explorers, Science and Engineering Challenge, QAMT Problem Solving Competition, International Young Physicists Tournament, Maths Challenge for Young Australians, Singapore Mathematical Modelling Forum, Australian Mathematics Competition, and the Australian Intermediate Mathematics Olympiad. One exciting development this year is the evolution of eSports — a co-curricular activity previously offered by the Technology Studies Faculty — into two distinct groups with overlapping areas of interest. This year the Technologies Faculty is supporting the newly-established Coders and Product Design Clubs. It is an exciting time and certainly a sign of the changing attitudes to technologies of our young women.
Coders Club will focus specifically on the development of programming (coding) to solve a ‘problem’. They will also grapple with physical computing and explore the emergent practice around the Internet of Things. The students involved in Product Design Club will be creating using traditional hand tools, technical drawing, specialist workshop machinery, CAD drawing, and technology-driven machines such as a laser cutter and 3D printer. These are wonderful experiences for our girls and excellent ways of building confidence and capability. University programmes related to engineering, architecture, product design and physical computing all involve practical elements which can be potentially confronting for those students who have not had prior exposure to that environment. The ability to be capable and confident in these environments at high school ensures a greater chance of gender equity in STEM-based industries and associated pathways for our girls when they move on to the tertiary level.
The diversity of curricular and co-curricular activities in which our students can involve themselves at Brisbane Girls Grammar School will provide them with the tools necessary to support their aspiration to assert themselves confidently in further study in STEM fields. The opportunity to apply practical skills in design technologies, physical computing, science disciplines, mathematics and programming will allow them to navigate a future which is increasingly technological.
The next generation of young women will be looking to them to bolster the ranks of women in these industries, reduce the gender gap and mentor them in an atmosphere that is conducive to the development and celebration of the knowledge and skills they are eagerly practising today.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor. (2000, February 16). Changes in women’s labor force participation in the 20th century. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2000/feb/wk3/art03.htm
Commonwealth of Australia, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. (2016). National Innovation and Science Agenda. Retrieved from http://www.innovation.gov.au/
Computerworld staff. (2011, September 3). Moth in the machine: Debugging the origins of ‘bug’. Retrieved from http://www.computerworld.com/article/2515435/app-development/moth-in-the-machine–debugging-the-origins-of–bug-.html
Wolfram, S. (2015, December 10). Untangling the tale of Ada Lovelace [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2015/12/untangling-the-tale-of-ada-lovelace
Wong J.C. (2016, February 12). Women considered better coders — but only if they hide their gender. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/12/women-considered-better-coders-hide-gender-github