children talking outside sat on benches

Head of Computer Science, Neelu, busts myths on girls studying Computer Science

Posted: 24th November 2022

students using the PCs

In spite of the falling numbers of girls choosing computing and technology nationally, HCH has seen an increase in the number of girls opting for GCSE and A Level. We interviewed Head of Computer Science, Neelu Vasishth, to find out why.

Hampton Court House has seen a significant increase in the number of our female students looking to take GCSE and A Level computer Science, to what do you attribute this?

Engaging curriculum 

The computer science GCSE and A Level courses are not offered by some schools due to lack of good computer science teachers or support of the senior leadership team in promoting a subject which is still optional at GCSE level. We have developed our own curriculum and resources with small innovations aligned with the national curriculum. The key focus is to build engagement and use fun activities to help students build up their knowledge of programming concepts, algorithms and the broader computer science field. We used a five pronged strategy to achieve our goals

  1. We shared the importance of this subject in the modern world with middle years and upper years to get students in every key stage excited about computer science
  2. We then designed specific activities that would appeal to girls with diverse interests. For female students interested in art and photography, an exercise on building animations was a great high. Similarly, most students with a visual bent (from visual arts to geography) enjoyed making thoughtful mobile applications in AppLab. 
  3. We planned cross curricular activities with other departments like Sports, Art, Maths and Humanities. This made pupils feel that this is a life skill and not an esoteric subject. Our KS2 students converted their artwork into a gif. Some KS3 students build revision apps and quizzes for other subjects using Javascript. Our Year 7 and Year 8 students participated in the Tech Festival at Roehampton University to design a sustainable city.
  4. We focused specifically on diversity and inclusion in the context of computer science. Using assemblies and class debates, students were introduced to challenges of AI ethics, biases in data sets and their implications. 
  5. Our department is completely paperless. Hence when we had to go remote during the pandemic, the transition was seamless.

Build awareness about careers other than programming in the field of computer science

Computer Science isn’t just about programming, it is a broad subject which has applications in multiple fields – Robotics, Engineering, Biotechnology, Data Science, Art, Games, Environment databases, Drugs research, Genetics, Filming, and Music. This exposure has broadened the understanding of students in terms of the avenues that these skills can open for them at university level and career prospects.

Female teachers as role models

The biggest challenge for us was to take the fear of this subject out from girls. As we are living in the age of machine learning, big data, artificial intelligence, and robotics, we need all genders to have knowledge about these new technologies. The girls gain a lot of confidence when they are taught by female teachers especially when these teachers also come with successful industry careers. I had a lot of discussions on my work as a telecommunication engineer writing code for mobile, base stations and even satellites.

What are some of the myths or stigmas that have previously made computer science courses and professions a predominantly male environment? How do we as a school go about redressing the balance?

Myth 1: Computer science is a really hard subject. 

The field of computer science requires problem solving skills and a disciplined approach to design solutions. It is a broad subject where you can learn tools and technologies based on your passion and interest. We have tools, exercises and scaffolding available for every skill level. At its core, it is going to be a new life skill.

Myth 2: You have to be good at Mathematics to succeed in computer science. 

Computer science is suitable for people from all kinds of backgrounds including humanities, visual arts, sports and science. You just need to have curiosity and a logical mind to learn new concepts and solve problems.

Myth 3: The subject is largely for loners, especially geeky men, who will sit all day in front of the screen. I am social/sporty/not a geek, so this is not for me.

This is not true as computer science requires problem solving which involves social interactions with other team members where you can discuss your ideas before you start implementing the solution. Be it in classrooms or industry, success in this field comes from diverse teams working together to develop a solution.

Myth 4: Programming comes natural to those who are good at it, not a “learnable” skill

Learning programming is like learning any new skill. One needs resilience and patience to learn how to code.

Our computer science department has two female course leads, to what extent has this made a difference to the perceptions of the course?

It has a real effect and not just on female students. First and foremost, it breaks the traditional and dated mental model of what a computer science expert looks like. Second, there is a naturally more diverse discussion in terms of examples, point of views that are shared in the classroom. Third, this gives the opportunity for girls to open up and be a bit more comfortable in asking questions and share their doubts. Lastly, as female teachers, we were able to emphatically share the legacy of pioneering women in this field from Ada Lovelace, the wonderful Bletchley park code breakers, and Margaret Hamilton.

Computer Science can cover broad topics, basic principles and nuanced or more technical applications, do you see particular trends or differences year on year in what the students are most interested in?

Students are less interested in traditional theory (computer architecture etc) but are more interested in learning how to build new things and experiences – be it new programming languages, making games using Unity, converting their drawing into a gif. They also like exposure to small flavours of latest innovations like building artificial intelligence in their apps or programs, and how cyber security would work in the context of a home or a school.