Friday, June 11, 2010

Girls in Technology

I just finished a nine-week, 7th grade technology class. It was a great bunch of kids. They experimented with straw rockets, constructed polygons in Geometer's Sketchpad,made pneumatic-powered devices, created egg drop vehicles, experimented with Lego Robotics, designed with Building Homes of Our Own, and ended with a GPS unit.

Often times my tech. classes are dominated by boys, but this class was about 50/50. In particular I had a group of girls who are model students as far as behavior and honor roll grades. They did every assignment with great attitudes. But when I asked the students at the end of the quarter about what their favorite and least favorite part of the class was,they did not like anything that we did. I got lots of "boring" comments. Now some of this could be chalked up to the end of the year, I just want to be out of here feelings, but it does bother me that my class seems to be loved by boys and only tolerated by girls. This is not the first time that I have received this kind of feedback from female students.

So what can I do differently? How can I get more girls (there are some who like my class) excited about technology, science, and engineering? Do I need a different kind of project or a different approach to my current ones?


  1. Hi Concrete Kax,

    This is a really exciting blog post because it seems to be very in style to wonder about boys' learning styles but more rarely (in my experience) about girls' learning styles. Thanks for being so egalitarian in your thinking.

    My friends who are parents of teen boys and teen girls tend to comment that boys love to talk about how things work and this is almost a bonding experience for them. Girls, on the other hand, tend to want to talk about their feelings more. I realize that this strays into stereotype territory but I will just repeat what my friends tell me nonetheless.

    Talking about feelings w/Grade 7 girls, well, not sure that that is a preferred pathway.

    However, showing real life connections (I'm sure you already do) or simply doing what you are doing (this is probably one of their first exposures to this field - stereotype again??) to build their background knowledge is incredibly valuable. One must almost over-learn something in order to innovate, don't you think?

    I love your honesty and your concern for all learners. Kudos to you.
    Asking the question brings you so much closer to the answer.

    They are lucky to have you as a teacher.


  2. Please email me at

  3. I'd be interested in suggestions you get also.

    When I ran an after-school tech club (mainly 5th graders) focusing mainly on Scratch programming, I got both boys and girls, but the projects they chose were quite different. The girls ended up mainly doing animations with a story line and a lot of drawing for the sprites, the boys generally ended up with more interactive (videogame) projects, with more sophisticated programming but less narrative and less effort spent on the images for the sprites.

    I don't know that the girl/boy distinction is necessarily relevant here, as the sample was small and the individual variation in skills and interests was larger than the gender differences.

    I have heard even from female technology teachers that they have a hard time getting middle-school girls interested in the projects, so I believe that the problem is not just the lack of a matching-gender role model.

  4. Seymour Papert's book, Mindstorms brings up this issue, though I think he was dealing with younger kids. They were playing with Legos, and the girls built a house. Eventually, they wanted to decorate with blinking lights. (I may be misremembering details.) They ended up getting into the technology though their own interests. I'll look for that story later, but I think you'd like the whole book.

  5. Have you ever asked the students what would help their experience be less boring?

    When I was a kid, I enjoyed science/engineering a lot but I was uncomfortable advertising that fact because it made me seem weird (and, at the time, it was unusual--I grew up before people worried about getting girls interested in math/science).

    Could you possibly get women engineers/scientists to come and talk to your class--not about being a woman in science/engineering, but just about their experiences in general? Girls might be more able to hook into the projects if they saw the bigger picture.

  6. I also teach 7th grade - in my case science. The girls seem to be bored by just about everything that isn't about boys, hair, clothes, makeup, etc. This is a broad generalization and there are exceptions but this has been my experience with science.

  7. Apparently this has struck many of you as a common problem so it would be good to find some ways to address it.

    I often talk about engineering in my class when we are designing different projects. I almost always bring up that it is a male-dominated field but that women are getting more and more involved and that companies are seeking out women and that it is a great field for them.

    I also will talk to individual students about their career interests and will often bring up engineering as something for them to consider. It often feels like they (male and female) only think in terms of doctor, lawyer, and business.

    It seems like more boys than girls like to tear things apart and tinker. But I have had some great girl tinkerers over the years. I also keep a wall of fame for the best projects and many of the winners are girls.

    Many of you mentioned coming at technology from girl's interests. I am not sure of what they would be. In my class we build many things. I am not sure what would be more interesting for girls to build. In 6th grade we make hot air balloons and some of the girls wanted to do that again, but I will not repeat projects.

    Perhaps some of the female commenters who obviously enjoy the sciences could share what "hooked" them into the field?

  8. Interesting post. I'd love to know what the girls say about WHY they found it boring. Did you get their feedback in writing? I wonder if oral feedback takes into consideration the whole 'What impression will I make?' peer pressure aspect.

  9. There are definitely gender differences, yes, sometimes these are stereotypes, but we can't ignore them.

    Plus this is such a touchy age, they change so quickly, and at such alarming rates. It's hard to figure out what works for everybody.

    That said, couple of comments:

    1. Boys tend to take problems at face value. They'll take things like video games and blast through 39,000 levels just because they are there. Girls tend to solve problems for social reasons, and negotiate the solutions more. If the problem is simply to "build an x" - that seems to me too overt for girls. Not that you have to trick them but to set things up in what PBL folks call a driving question or challenge, for which there are numerous solutions. Perhaps things like "build a game that teaches math to younger students" would appeal more...

    2. Girls are more compliant than boys. This is convenient because they are better behaved, and more willing to do assignments, but it translates to complacency because it dulls the highs and lows of any experience. If every challenge is just a maze to be run, every maze looks the same. There is little joy in figuring out what the teacher wants time after time, it's just another chore. Tinkering is a waste of time. I'm not sure you can break this habit in a short period of time without doing something drastic. Perhaps you could completely unhook your projects from any kind of rubrics, steps, and assessment. That would rattle them up!

    3. I'm not sure about the "see, there are women engineers" stuff. I don't think girls (or boys) see themselves as adults, ever.

    If I came to your classroom, my honest answer would be that I was a complete social zero at their age, essentially too dumb to notice that girls weren't supposed to be good at math and science. I'm glad now, but it was a weird and lonely time back then. Not sure that's going to be motivating.

    I DO remember some of that when I was a student, they would trot out some beauty queen as evidence that girls could do anything. At the time, I barely identified myself as a girl, much less a woman, so it may as well have been a different species. Plus I think the hidden message is, see, we still expect you to be pretty even if you are smart. Sheesh, what pressure.

    4. Why not repeat a project, but the rule is they have to propose what they will do to make it bigger and better, and more scientific. Like tools to measure altitude, an onboard camera, a video documentary of the balloon building and launch, stuff like that.

  10. Great & honest post. I know the difficulties you face & have tried very hard to tweak my teaching to appeal to both sexes. While boys are more naturally interested on the whole I have going that girls are more receptive when I make things as creative as possible-creating animations, designing their own houses/rooms etc & using creative technologies has helped-podcasts, storytelling software etc. They also seem to like working in pairs! It does sound like you're doing great stuff already & with girls sometimes it takes a while! :)

  11. I have been teaching technology to the whole of Grade 7 every Friday afternoon this year. My experience is just the opposite I have found the girls much more motivated and engaged than most of the boys, they are more mature and less likely to engage in silly behaviour with the materials and the tools too. I'm wondering if this is because I'm a female technology teacher and therefore tech is not seen as a "male" subject. For me the biggest motivator has been to give the students a choice about what they design and make.
    You ask about what "hooks" women into science and technology. Hard to say. I went to an all girls school where we were expected to be good at everything: arts, languages, maths, sciences and so on. There were no subjects that were more popular with the boys because there were no boys. Perhaps this is what made a difference for me.

  12. What a great post. I really like your active stance and commitment to making things better, instead of blaming the students. (Although I have a friend who says that children are like gremlins: if you feed them after 12, they turn into monsters...)

    I know that there was a "storytelling Alice" (
    skewed towards girls that seemed to have some ideas that might be re-usable for you.

    MIT also had the idea that robotics was the way to engage girls, maybe they might have more info.

  13. My daughter took a class like yours last semester, and liked it less well than I had expected. She's not your typical girl (plays video games, not interested in clothes, not interested in talking to other girls about boys, etc). I had great hopes for the Lego robotics class, but it didn't work out for her.

    My theory is that the problem with the class she took for her was that it was too much tinkering (perhaps too open ended and student directed) and too little theory for her. What I think would have helped is if, after all the projects were assembled for an assignment, if they/the teacher had spent time talking about what engineering principles had made some designs work better than others, and then they had a chance to use that knowledge to improve their designs or it was directly applicable to the next project, she would have come out of it feeling like she had learned a lot, rather than like it was random tinkering that she wasn't very good at.

    It's hard to know, of course, but I think that some people (in particular my daughter) need the abstract to help them understand the concrete as well as the other way around, and if you go back and forth, it helps them "get" it, and it helps them feel more confident and competent.

    Of course, I don't know that I'm right--it could be something else entirely--just my theory as a mom.

  14. @Sue VanHattum: I've read Mindstorms, but did not find it a very inspiring book. Of course, I had already been doing a lot of the stuff proposed in it for years, so it was more like reading a history book than anything else.

    I have a post on another approach that is being used to reach girls (which I'm a bit dubious about):