Last month I wrote about the need for more women in cyber security. The research for that post has made me reconsider some of my views about STEM education and I’d like to share some of that with you. Specifically, I was probably wrong about something. Let me begin with a story:
When I was ready to go to high school in the 1970s, my parents offered to send me to a private all-boys school that had a reputation for good academic achievement. Even though we lived in a great school district to go to that school would have meant a very high quality education. I declined the offer. I felt then, as I do now, that learning in a diverse environment is critical. I had a great time in high school and learned a lot. I made the right choice.
I studied computer engineering at a state university and most of my classes had a sprinkling of women. I attributed the male-female mix more to the times than to the content itself.
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have been teaching technology topics since the late 1970s. During that time I have advocated strongly for gender-integrated classes. I still believe that is generally the best approach. However, for introductory courses that may not always be the case. When I began I mostly taught men and women who were engineering majors. In the early days of teaching for Learning Tree – over thirty years ago, most of the women in the classes had technology degrees or significant experience in one or more areas of technology. That is no longer the case.
I now think we need to offer some introductory courses for programming (or, “coding” to use a popular term) to women-only audiences. I’m not advocating completely separate intro classes, but I think we need some specific classes that are open only to women. The outline and course materials may even be the same, but participants and instructor would be only women. Part of my shift in reasoning is related to the success of women-only courses as noted in an article in Fast Company. My thinking is not based on the old idea of “learning styles”, but rather on the idea that on some level men and women “think differently”. I’m not an expert in cognitive science, but I have watched female instructors teach and they do some things differently than I do. I know from experience that at least some women seem to learn better from women in an all-woman environment. My previous insistence all courses being gender-mixed was probably wrong. I continue to believe that the diversity of men and women in the same class or learning event is necessary beyond, perhaps, some introductory courses.
Are women-only introductory courses an answer to the dearth of women in technology fields? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that they seem to work and that we need to increase diversity in STEM occupations.
Let us know in the comments what you think about this. I seriously want to hear from as many of you as possible. This is an important issue and the time to address it is now.
To your safe computing,