Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, joins us in conversation about the ways schools can get girls excited about careers in computer science and other technological fields.
What do you believe is the biggest obstacle educators face when trying to introduce new technology in the classroom?
We hear from educators and parents all the time that they want their students and daughters to learn computer science, but they don’t know where to access it. Only about 1-in-4 high schools in the United States actually teach computer science and only 28 states (plus the District of Columbia) allow students to count computer science courses towards graduation. Girls Who Code is solving a problem a lot of parents and educators have an interest in solving by offering summer and after-school computer science education programs for middle school and high school girls across the country.
One of the biggest obstacles we hear from our instructors when it comes to teaching computer science is that girls in particular tend to lose interest early on because they are afraid of trying something they might not excel at right away. Learning how to code is a process of trial and error, and mistakes are unavoidable. I talk about this in my TED Talk, but one common scenario we hear is that a student would rather show her instructor a blank screen then show she’s tried and made a mistake. Perfection can be a barrier for sustaining girls’ interest in the field.
What is the most effective way you’ve seen technology implemented in schools to help engage students?
At Girls Who Code, we address the structural and cultural barriers that keep girls from entering the field. In both our Summer Immersion Program and our Clubs program, students work on a final project using technology to solve an issue that matters to them. That personal relevance is crucial in sparking and sustaining girls’ interest in the field and engaging students. It ensures we’re not making assumptions about a student’s unique experience. Whether it’s a game to illustrate the experience of an undocumented immigrant or a website to provide free college prep, our girls create technology that solves issues that matter to them and their communities.
What can be done in schools to get young women excited about a potential career in technology?
While girls interest declines over time, the greatest drop-off happens in middle school, when girls start to receive messages that technology isn’t for them. We call this period of time the “interest cliff,” and we need programs designed specifically to spark and sustain girls interest — starting in middle school.
Girls and boys have an equal ability to learn about and get interested in the subject — it’s not an aptitude issue. But I believe we hold boys and girls to different standards when it comes to success. Our girls are brilliant. They are talented. They are just as capable as the boys. But they are afraid. They are afraid of imperfection. They are afraid of critical feedback. They are not taught to be brave the way boys are. We need to start challenging our girls to step outside of their comfort zone and reward them for trying.
Both education and technology have transformed at a rapid pace in the past five years. What do you believe will be the biggest change in the educational technology industry five years down the road?
Automation is about to change everything about the way we live and work. According to McKinsey, 45 percent of the tasks that people do manually today have the potential to be automated using current technology alone. The pace of innovation has never been faster, and the future is going to look nothing like the present. We need to ensure that our girls are prepared for 21st-century jobs, and to do that we need to invest in programs that address the opportunity gaps in education. I think five years from now you’ll see a lot more investment in technology education in schools thanks to local government and school districts stepping up to the challenge.