Using relevant contexts to engage girls in the Computing classroom: Study results

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Today we are sharing an assessment report of another study that is part of our Gender Balance in Computing research program. In this study, we examined the effects of using relevant contexts in classroom program activities for 12- to 13-year-olds on girls’ and boys’ attitudes towards computers.

Two female students program together on a computer.

We’ve been working on Gender Balance in Computing with partner organizations Behavioral Insights Team, Apps for Good and WISE since 2018 to conduct research studies examining how to encourage more girls and young women to learn about computing at school occupy. The research program was funded by the Department of Education and we conduct it as part of the National Center for Computing Education. The report we are publishing today is about the penultimate study of the programme.

Components of a computer curriculum

A typical computing curriculum is based on content: a list of concepts, knowledge, and skills to be covered during the course. For some learners, this list will be enough to motivate them and get them involved with computers. However, other learners need more to engage with the topic, e.g. B. Context on how to use the computer skills they have learned in the real world. Crucially, this difference between learners is often gender specific. Research has shown that many boys are absorbed by the content in computer courses, while for many girls the context for using computer skills is more important and this context needs to relate to a variety of relevant scenarios in which computers can solve problems.

In a computer classroom, a girl laughs at what she sees on the screen.

Development of teaching materials to emphasize the relevance of computer science

In the Relevance Study, we worked with colleagues from Apps for Good to create instructional materials that presented computers in contexts relevant to students’ own interests. To do this, we used a research concept called identification. This states that when learners are interested in a topic because it touches part of their own identity, the topic becomes more meaningful to them personally, which in turn means they are more likely to study it further. In the materials we created, we relied on learners’ identities based on the communities they belonged to (see image below). The materials challenged them to identify the connections they had to their own communities and then use that as context to design and create a mobile app.

A slide from a computer lesson asking learners to identify the communities they belong to based on their family, faith, school, interests, etc.
The intervention materials asked learners to think about the communities they belong to.

“I feel a sense of accomplishment in computer science when the implementation of your ideas makes you proud of your creation, which is rewarding.” (Students, Relevance Study Assessment Report p. 57)

The Relevance Research Study

Between January 2022 and April 2022, more than 95 secondary schools participated in our study, which examined how learning with these resources might affect the attitudes of 8th grade students (ages 12-13) towards computers . We thank all schools, students and teachers who participated in this study.

To allow the study to be interpreted as a randomized controlled trial, the schools were randomly divided into two groups: a “control” group, which provided standard computer instruction, and a “treatment” group, which provided the intervention materials we developed delivered. The impact of the intervention was independently assessed by the Behavioral Insights team using data collected from students via surveys conducted at the beginning and end of the intervention. The evaluators also collected data while conducting classroom observations, student group discussions, teacher interviews, and teacher surveys to understand how the intervention was delivered.

The girls who took part in the intervention chose an interesting range of contexts for their apps, including:

  • Solving problems in the school community, such as B. Homework planning and public transport
  • Interest-based communities, such as B. melodies and interior design
  • Issues in broader communities, such as sea creatures and mental health

“I feel like it’s an important issue and I feel like marine life is under threat right now and I want to help people see that.” (Learners, Relevance Study Evaluation Report p. 60)

“I feel that computers can develop apps related to solving mental health problems, which I think are very important and need to be greatly improved personally in how we deal with mental health problems.” (Learners, relevance study evaluation report p. 60)

What we learned from the relevance study

The beginning of this blog relates to the core components of a computing curriculum: concepts, knowledge and skills. One way to create a curriculum is to list these components and develop a working scheme that covers them all. However, in a recent paper on computer education, researchers propose an alternative route: developing curriculum around learners’ possible endpoints. For computers, one endpoint might be the commercial opportunities of a programming career, but another might be the use of digital technologies for creative expression. The researchers argue that when learners are given the opportunity to use computers as a tool in relation to personally meaningful contexts, a more diverse group of learners can engage with the topic.

A group of teenagers pose for a group photo in a computer science classroom.

Girls participating in our relevance study expressed the importance of creativity. “I think last semester we had instructions and you follow them, whereas now it’s like your own ideas and creativity and whatever you do,” said one learner (report, p. 56). The series of lessons, in which learners designed a prototype of their app, was particularly popular with girls because the activity involved creative expression. Girls who consider themselves creative direct their interests towards subjects that allow them to express that part of their identity.

A slide from a computer lesson in which learners are asked to design a mobile app on paper.
Using the intervention materials, learners developed a paper prototype of their app before writing code for it.

Based on learners’ responses to a ‘Yes No’ When asked if they were likely to choose GCSE Computer Science, the study’s reviewers found no statistically significant differences between the students who were part of the treatment and control groups. However, if learners were asked to choose from a list which subjects they were likely to choose at GCSE, there was a statistically significant difference in the results: girls from schools in the treatment group were more likely to choose GCSE Computer Science as one of their options than girls in the control group. This result suggests that gender balance in computer science would be beneficial if educators designing computer science curricula consider multiple endpoints for learners and incorporate personally meaningful contexts to create learning experiences that are relevant to different groups of learners.

Learn more about making computers relevant to your learners

This is the penultimate report to be published on the studies that are part of the Gender Balance in Computing program. If you want to stay up to date about the program, you can sign up for our newsletter. Our final report is about a study that examined the role that option books and option evenings play in pupils’ choice of subjects.

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