When I started the middle-school robotics program at the Chapin School, an all-girls school in New York, it became pretty apparent that stereotypical assumptions that girls weren’t really interested in building robots, using coding programs or competing in coding contests were incorrect.
Five years after we started, we had a top team in the First Lego League robotics competition. With only female participants, those teams would later go on to compete against international teams. When the boys told them that an all-girls team could not win, the female students stepped up to the challenge and relished the idea of proving those naysayers wrong. My school purchased the CoderZ online learning platform for coding virtual and real robots in my classroom and virtually. I also aid academic and social-emotional support providers as they help girls pursue higher education and STEM careers through the nonprofit I co-founded, Community Bots. Here are five ways that an online coding program has helped us teach STEM to girls in the classroom, remotely and around the world:
1. No equipment needed
You don’t need all the very expensive equipment and the challenges of training teachers to use real robotics; many programs can be self-taught. We’re going to be training teachers in Colombia over the next two months via self-paced learning through modules, for example, and also are running a robotics training with them in person.
2. Gets girls started in STEM early
We want to provide girls with positive computer science experiences early on to bridge the gender gap in computer science and engineering. In computer science, the numbers are quite low for undergraduate degrees — sometimes around 5:1 (boys to girls). When you get to the doctoral level — and especially for women of color — the numbers are even lower (often just 2% or 3% female). The evidence supports that when girls are in elementary and middle school, they need positive role modeling and the hands-on experience of doing the coding. Those experiences also have to be fun, engaging and linked to a positive social outcome in the students’ lives in order to specifically capture girls’ attention and commitment to the field.
3. Coding program builds confidence
Girls who learn coding at a young age realize that their gender’s low representation on teams, in classrooms and at board meetings does not have to impede their dreams or hold them back. The girls who spend two years in high school on a winning, male-dominated robotics team will carry that level of confidence and sense of achievement with them through their entire lives. When they go to the competition, our girls feel like they are entitled to win it — just like the boys do.
4. Prepares students for the future
A good coding program provides transferable skills that align with other, more advanced coding skills, be it Python or another real-world coding language that people use in the workplace. Anytime we can help make those connections, we help bring STEM to life for girls. For example, the newer language that Lego uses is Scratch-based, and students love it because they can create animations and games for each other. Then, they get into the coding program and are using the same language to make a robot move. This makes the experience of education more powerful and relevant for students.
5. Gets teachers comfortable with robotics
Some coding platforms also make STEM instruction more accessible to teachers who may not have robotics or coding experience. Teachers generally like the accessibility of an online coding program that doesn’t require them to have any advanced training initially, because coding and robotics can be pretty intimidating if you don’t have a technical background. If you are trying to bring coding to a community that lacks resources, an educational coding program can help you reach a wide audience of kids or adults and give them a taste of what coding is like in a fun gaming environment. The best part is that students have so much fun, they don’t even realize they are learning.
Jack Cooley, formerly a teacher at the Chapin School, now is a teacher at the Allen-Stevenson School in New York and co-founder of the Community Bots nonprofit. Chapin and Community Bots use the CoderZ program. Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.