Australian students turning away from computing subjects

SYDNEY – Young men and women are walking away from secondary school studies that could lead to careers in IT, with young women turning away faster than their male counterparts, according to the dean of Charles Sturt University’s Faculty of Education.

Professor Toni Downes was a senior member of a research team that sought to gauge the interests in particular high school subjects and potential careers of 1,334 male and female Year 10 students across the states of New South Wales (NSW), Victoria and South Australia.

Only 13 percent, or 94 out of 739 girls, indicated they would study IT related subjects in their senior years. Between 2002 and 2007, both boys and girls shied away from secondary school computing and IT subjects across the three states. While girls were less represented than boys, they are walking away in greater numbers.

Downes believes that the changes to the NSW high school curriculum in 2001, when the focus of Year 12 computing subjects shifted from a combination of computer literacy and foundational studies to greater emphasis on computing and IT as an academic discipline, have contributed to the decline in enrolments across NSW and especially among females.

“This has also resulted in a greater gender imbalance in the students taking senior computing, with a decreasing proportion of female students taking Year 12 computing and IT subjects,” Downes said.

“The reasons are complex, but the reasons that girls give are often the same reasons that disinterested boys give. Sometimes they are making their judgments on careers based on stereotypes, sometimes the girls are making their decisions based on self-limiting identities like ‘it’s not cool for me to be a nerd’ because they think the career is nerdy.”

Other factors influencing deterrence from a career in IT is a perception that it isn’t a very social oriented industry, or the perception that while a young person might not know what career path they wish to follow, they already know how to use a computer and therefore dismiss it as a potential area of study. ‘

“They are showing a confusion about being able to drive the car and being able to build or fix the car. They are confusing knowing how to use a computer with a deep understanding of the underlying scientific, mathematical or conceptual framework. The boys that are walking away are making the same types of mistakes – making judgments on the stereotypical image of the career or what they imagine they would be studying,” Downes said.

Rightly or wrongly, Downes said there is no introductory foundation on computational thinking, data and data types or algorithmic thinking in student’s early years, leading them to imagining what studying computing and IT is all about from their experiences using computers at home or at school. Boys generally engage in activities such as computer gaming at a higher rate than girls, and their capacity as computer hobbyists is one factor influencing their higher rate of career uptake in the IT industry.

“As hobbyists they actually become insiders, they begin to develop an intuitive understanding of how things work. There are some girls in that group but not a lot, and being an insider through your hobbies makes you want to learn more about how things work.”

One problem, according to Downes’ research, is that girls don’t engage with technology in a way that allows them to use it playfully, rather they use it functionally.

“So they haven’t formed a relationship in such a way that they become insiders, and therefore they are not deeply attracted to thinking both creatively or critically about why and how it works. The patterns are not dissimilar to patterns around engineering and physics, but I think at the time of a skills shortage the industry is missing out on an enormous amount of talent and creativity,” Downes said.

“My sense is that an industry matures when it can attract a diversity of talents and a diversity of backgrounds and experiences to it — be it the builders, makers, fixers or the people that train others to use it.”

Downes indicated that initiatives such as the Tech Girls Are Chic, Not Just Geek book that was freely distributed to female Australian high school students, the Go Girl Go For IT initiative, the IT’s million $ babes award and other AWISE programs do help attract more girls into IT, but she calls for a complete reformatting of young people’s perceptions to careers in IT.

“Once you remove those programs you go back to the status quo. Programs that say this is cool tend to give permission to the girls that are interested but don’t feel permitted to demonstrate their interests, but what about the larger group of boys and girls that don’t believe its relevant or don’t have ‘insider’ experiences such that they ask enquiring questions about how it works.

“To support the kids who are interested but who think its too geeky is one thing, but to fundamentally reframe some of the ways of thinking about how you build applications, how you solve problems, design environments, that’s where I think the hard work needs to be done. We need to find ways to engage more young people so that they become ‘insiders’.”

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