Bridging Tech's Gender Gap ... With Dance
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because teaching STEM skills to our youth doesn’t have to look the same way it did 50 years ago.
By Vignesh Ramachandran
Sign your kids up for dance class, STAT. That is, if you want them to learn computer skills and survive the 21st century.
Researchers at Clemson University are helping young girls learn computational skills through dance, in a surprising new attempt to fix the gender gap in computer science. And it’s quite a gap: 17 percent of Google’s technical workforce is female; Facebook’s even worse — only 15 percent of technical workers are women. The disparity starts early. Of the students who took the Advanced Placement computer science exam in 2013, only
were female, according to the College Board.
Clemson’s method: Teach programming concepts by paralleling them with dance moves. Assistant professor of computing Shaundra Daily — a dancer herself — is working with colleagues in dance education and computer science; she says students get used to scientific concepts by actually moving and playing with their bodies. Kids in her studies work in a virtual environment where the programmer works via an avatar; the children learn to create dance moves by pulling blocks and snapping them together on the computer, in order to make an on-screen avatar move. Down the road, she says, it’ll become an even heftier programming experience.
Choreography’s not so different from computing, says Jennifer Chiu, an assistant professor of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Education at the University of Virginia. Both require rhythm and precision alongside abstraction. Plus, it’s “potentially transformative” to get otherwise uninterested young people addicted to computer science.
“It’s not just making a phone or making a computer chip,” Daily says of public perception of coders. She wants kids to think bigger. Pixar movies. Sleek sports cars. Medical tech that saves lives. All engineering feats, all things the next generation could be excited by.
Still, nontraditional methods for teaching STEM can be hit or miss, says Christian Schunn, a senior scientist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center. If you teach a STEM concept physically, you hide the abstractions and it can become too concrete, Schunn explained. And math, science and programming are a lot about abstractions, he adds. But y’know? It might be better than textbooks.