Monday, April 28, 2014

Girls Coding: The International Women's Hackathon

This past weekend I had the privilege to attend the International Women's Hackathon, held simultaneously at  50 universities around the world with approximately 2500 young women taking part. The San Diego regional contingent was held at California State University - San Marcos. Approximately 70 high school and college
students registered and then arrived from all over the region. My informal poll recorded 6 colleges and universities and 6 high schools. One set of students came up on a bus from close to 100 miles away and two high school students came all the way from Tijuana, Mexico. Many sleep loving students must have risen and hit the road well before dawn to arrive for the 8am check-in.

During the welcoming and introductory portion of the morning some interesting information came out. For example, when asked, not one of the participants had heard of The Hour of Code. I was somewhat suprised, because here we had 70 girls who are interested in coding, yet none of the massive celebrity laden publicity had reached any of them.

Here is another interesting piece of information: only 2 students raised their hands to say they had participated in a hackathon before. I was intrigued. So later, I asked around about this. Some girls told me they had never heard of hackathons; one told me she had no idea what one was, thinking perhaps it was an opportunity to hack into computers - apparently one of her parents cleared things up on the drive over. Perhaps most telling, one 16 year old told me 

"if it [the hackathon] was both genders most of the women would not have showed up".

Considering that, though officially open to everyone, most hackathons are attended primarily by males, this may have been the most important response to my question. One worth thinking about by everyone who wants to make a positive difference for women in computing.
The range of prior computing experience on Saturday was huge. Some students had never coded at all and some, within a few minutes of gathering into their teams, were talking about appropriate uses of recursion
and how different class hierarchies functioned. Some participants had formed teams in advance and others were helped to form compatible groups first thing in the morning. No one was left out.

I trotted around, trying to pop in on every group of students (13 in all) several times during the course of the day. It was amazing to observe how events unfolded, the students' skills and confidence evolving and growing in tandem. 

For example, the first group I dropped in on, at about 9am, was a high school team with zero coding experience. They were clearly nervous and unsure how to get going (in case you worry they were completely on their own, 16 adult mentors circulated around all day, but were not allowed on the keyboard). These team members didn't know each other ahead of time. None of them had taken a computing class, none of them had plans to study Computer Science or a related field. So why were these girls there? One wanted to run her own business some day and thought it would be useful to know something about coding; one had taught herself about robotics from watching YouTube videos and had then joined a robotics club; one didn't know what a hackathon was but thought it sounded interesting. Interesting sounding enough to give up her entire Saturday. Talk about a motivated trio!

By 4pm, when I revisited them, this team was seated in the lab, each on her own computer, writing html code
and confidently talking back and forth about how to integrate their individual web pages onto one site about  encouraging more women to go into STEM. 

At the other end of the prior experience spectrum was a team of college women, who told me they
were 4 of only 12 females in a department of 500 Computer Science majors. How did they know? There were so few of them that they all knew each other; on the rare occasion when they saw they weren't the only woman in class they immediately gravitated across the lecture hall to meet their compatriot. This foursome was incredibly enthusiastic about the hackathon, and within less than 8 hours had created a complex web platform that blew even the judges away.

In chatting with them earlier in the day, one of the things these women told me was that they felt it was very important to to get the word out that women in Computer Science are intelligent, social, have a wide variety of interests, are attractive, have a fashion sense, and are equally as competent as all the guys (and a few other things I didn't write down fast enough). They were also one of several groups who told me they wanted to change the world.

As I circulated between PC labs and the Mac lab, up and down the hallways, I  was impressed with the nearly universal lack of overt competitiveness within groups or of jockeying for leadership position. Cooperation was the name of the game. Often, as I sat off to the side for extended periods of time, I observed an amazing dynamic in which these young women worked together, discussing ideas, deferring to one another, trying to bring others along when they had
questions, dividing tasks based upon interests and experience. This is not to say the groups were unambitious; definitely not. They aimed high, worked incredibly hard and, once they had settled on a mutually agreeable plan, they focused, focused, focused on developing the best possible contest entry. Everyone had a part to play. Yet even then, the focus was on building the best app or web page or game to solve the task - I didn't hear anyone worrying aloud about what the other groups might be doing.

The day was incredibly inspiring. So many of these young women taught themselves to use platforms they had never heard of before. So many of them produced incredible results. They were energetic and enthusiastic and fun to be around. In fact, having watched all of the presentations made to the judges, I can confidently say that all of the hackathon participants were amazing. Every team had something concrete and unique to show for their efforts.

We need more events like this. Lots more. And follow up to keep the ball rolling after the day ends. Lots of follow up activities to hold the excitement and enthusiasm and continue the unique dynamic that girls and women clearly bring to Computer Science.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

History and Navigation Adventures in Techie-Land

Officer Mac of the Sunnyvale, CA Police Department

It doesn't get much more awash in tech than here in Mountain View, California. This afternoon I visited the Computer History Museum - an obligatory stop when you make the rounds here. Aside from the expected reminders of how fast tech moves (I saw an Osborne 1,  the earliest portable computer, weighing in at a mere 23.5 lbs in its carrying case, a carrying case I hauled proudly around in the days when I didn't worry about yanking out my spine or popping a rotator cuff), I learned some unexpected fun facts that even many of my super techie friends and colleagues might not know.

Did you know that punched cards were critical to the compilation of the British Atlas of Flora and Fauna, published by the Botanical Society of the British Isles in 1962? Data was compiled on 40 column punch cards and then used to create distribution maps. The maps were printed as dots on maps that covered the entire British Isles. Those maps, as well as some of the original cards, are on display in the museum.

Officer Mac was created by 21st Century Robotics (a US company) and in 1985 was known to visit schools as a goodwill ambassador for the  police department. Officer Mac, who was as tall as some adults, was operated by remote control. He showed public safety videos. But here's the really good part: Officer Mac (A ROBOT!) was used as a nonthreatening counselor to abused children. I really wished there had been more information to read about how this was done and how well it worked.

Have you ever heard of Barbera Stephenson? I hadn't. An engineering graduate of MIT, she was hired by Digital Equipment Corporation in 1961 as their first female engineer. There was a nice quote on the wall about how she dealt with the many men who were at  first unbelieving and then astounded to encounter her. She'd start politely rattling off the technical information they were looking for and then they'd react as if they had encountered a new life form.

Outside of my museum visit, and clearly in the giggle department, is my interaction with Google's navigation system this week. Here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a few short miles from Google Central, I have had more quirky encounters with their navigation system than anywhere else in the country. As soon as I entered Mountain View the navigation started having trouble with street names. This morning for example, as I exited the driveway, the polite authoritative voice told me to TURN LEFT. Well, turning left was clearly going to go the long way around the block. So I turned right.

A few minutes later, as I encountered the first large intersection, the navigation told me to TURN RIGHT, naming a road that was clearly not the road in front of me. Now, in case you think that navigation was smarter than me, you would be wrong, for I had (as always) done a manual check of where I was going prior to getting into the car. Knowing where I was (a mere 2 blocks from my starting point) I turned right. Perhaps navigation was miffed. Because from then on: no more street names. For the rest of the day I was instructed to TURN LEFT or TURN RIGHT or GO STRAIGHT or CONTINUE without any identifiers or distances. When navigation ordered me to MAKE A U-TURN a split second after turning into the right most lane of a very busy multi-lane street, I could swear I detected a note of smug self-satisfaction.

Strange things like this have been going on for days. Last weekend, as I drove south on Interstate 880 towards Mtn. View, navigation authoritatively instructed me to take one of the exits, go around the block and get back on the freeway. I knew that exiting was in error, but I was in no hurry, and curious to see what the system was up to. So I made the very short diversion through an empty office park before continuing on my way.

Is there a Bermuda Triangle effect at work here? Either that or my navigation system is malfunctioning. Nah...

Friday, April 4, 2014

Not Even in Silicon Valley!

Entrepreneurs Hard at Work

Recently, several friends of mine who run startups in the San Francisco Bay Area and I have been talking about school age kids and computer science education opportunities. My friends are not only dedicated entrepreneurs but dedicated parents of elementary age children and they are highly motivated to see to it that their kids obtain quality exposure to computer science early.

You'd think that in Silicon Valley of all places, there would be no end to the list of CS activities to choose from. Piece of cake? Apparently not. When my friends first told me there was something missing from computer science offerings I was surprised and very curious. I'm hanging out in SV this week and so I started doing some investigation.

Not surprisingly, there is a relative lack of computer science teachers in the public schools here. This is a nationwide problem and here, where rents and mortgages are as sky high as the private sector tech salaries, it's hardly surprising that modestly paid computer science teachers are few and far between.

There are lots of startups in the K-12 coding space - I've written about them here a few times. For the average parent however, working in hi-tech or not, these startups have no impact on their own kids. As one of my friends told me, they can't afford to wait 5 - 10 years to see what pans out because by then their kids will have graduated from high school.

There are science camps; math camps; weekend programs, and clubs. Oodles of them. Some of these have some computing in them. Some, a few, involve some coding. What my friends told me is missing  is something that is broader, deeper and that lasts longer than a day, or even a week. Something with continuity. My next thought was, what about the various national competitions? There are decathlons in math and science, there are several programs with the approach taken by Odyssey of the Mind (OM). What about them? I started reading about these and other programs.

No computer science. Not even close. No computer science in the national science decathlons; no computer science in the math decathlons; no computer science in OM and related programs. They cover just about everything else: many fields of science, wide and creative applications of math, the performing and visual arts, history, literature, engineering, design. 'Technology' usually translates into anything but computer science. Engineering translates into ... engineering.

Parents have a right to be unhappy. You don't have  to be a hi-tech parent to be unhappy. Hi-tech parents are at least aware of the lack of computer science opportunities both in and out of the formal curriculum. How many parents who are not in hi-tech careers are even aware of what is missing? The more I read, the more I dug, the more sure I became that I wasn't going to find computer science embedded in any of these otherwise academically diverse competitions for kids.

What's with that?