Girls, Golf and Gadgets
Can pairing sports and technology keep young women dreaming big about STEM?
Lola Makanjuola is only 11 years old, but she already has a pretty good idea for an app she wants to build when she becomes a software developer.
“You know when you’re wandering around the grocery store and can’t find that one thing you’re looking for?” she told me during a break in the action at the girls coding camp she was attending. “It drives you crazy! Well, what if there was an app where you could just type in the thing and it would tell you what aisle it’s in? That would save soooooo much time.”
We talked for a minute about how you could make it work: Maybe you could get grocery store chains to send you product maps of stores, and they could advertise to your users when the GPS on their phones indicated they were in the store. Or people could correct aisle location information, similar to the way people using Google Maps report traffic accidents or speed traps. The camp’s coding instructors said that was some pretty sophisticated thinking. In particular, Lola’s idea has two fundamental ingredients every app needs to be successful: a specific audience and a clear problem it’s trying to solve.
This brand of critical reasoning (educators call it computational thinking) is exactly what organizers hope kids will get out of the two-week program, which is a partnership between UM-Dearborn and the city of Westland. There’s also a bigger-picture mission here. Whether Lola goes on to study computer science and pursue a career in tech is something of a statistical toss-up. Several recent studies have shown that while girls show plenty of interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as middle schoolers, it often tapers off as they transition to high school. And that kink in the educational pipeline could be part of the reason why women continue to be under-represented in STEM fields.
Researchers are still investigating what’s causing this phenomenon. But among educators, it’s already sparked a sense that young women interested in STEM need to be supported with opportunities through this critical age. That’s the core idea behind the coding camp, said UM-Dearborn’s Jeanne Girard, whose Extended Learning and Outreach office organized the program. Some of the strategies they’re using, like near-peer mentoring, are tried-and-true favorites. Every morning during the coding instruction, Lola and the other girls worked directly alongside two UM-Dearborn computer science students, both women. The hope was that getting to know actual college students who are studying STEM could help spark and sustain the girls’ own college and career dreams.
Girard said her team also wants to use the camp to investigate a second strategy — namely whether pairing coding with another activity the students might be interested in could help keep them hooked on STEM. One quirky idea that stuck: combining the coding class with sports. That’s why every day at camp, after the kids finished working on their mobile apps in the morning, they headed out with members of the UM-Dearborn golf team to learn how to play.
The pairing of golf and coding may seem a little arbitrary at first glance, but computer science professor Brahim Medjahed, who helped design the camp, believes the match makes sense. For one, trying to teach kids computational thinking for a whole day can be a bit of a slog, so getting them outside “where they really want to be in the summer,” said Medjahed, gives their brains a break. He also said that teaching app building — specifically the core problem solving it involves — can make a lot more sense to kids when they’re solving real challenges. And as anyone who has ever golfed before understands, the game provides a slew of them, especially when you’re starting out.
You could see what Medjahed was talking about as students hit the golf course on a Thursday afternoon. After 12-year-old Mallory Dennis hit a solid first shot off the tee, for example, the girls started conferring about how far she had to go to reach the green and which club she should use. It was Medjahed’s computational thinking in action: They identified a problem, reasoned through it and figured out a solution.
Everything came full circle back in the coding lab, where the challenge of the day was to start planning a mobile app that could help them on the golf course. The brainstorming ensued, and one team came up with an idea for an app to help new golfers remember all the little things in their pre-shot routine — placing your feet shoulder width apart, remembering to take a practice swing, keeping your head down. They started thinking that the app could even give these instructions by talking to you, so you wouldn’t have to hold or look at a phone. Then they came up with an idea for a club recommendation function that involved using the phone’s GPS to measure the distance to the hole and then suggest a club. It’s a tech solution to some real-world challenges they identified on the golf course.
Moments like these are some promising early qualitative evidence that non-coding activities could be used to teach the kind of problem solving that underlies software programming. The question of whether such combinations of activities can help sustain girls’ interest in STEM, however, is a bit trickier to answer. UM-Dearborn education professor Mesut Duran will be taking a look at both questions with a post-project evaluation. In particular, he’s interested to see if pairing sports with STEM activities can strengthen the girls’ interests in the latter. He’ll be evaluating that, in part, by comparing the students’ responses to survey questions before and after the camp.
It will, of course, be years before we know if any of the camps’ participants continue on their current STEM trajectories. Melissa Paul and Jessica Sterly, the two UM-Dearborn computer science students who helped out with the camp, may offer a glimpse into the future by proxy. They both have personal experience with STEM’s gender gap: Both were one of only a couple of female students in their high school coding classes that made it through their teenage years with their passions for STEM intact.
Paul and Sterly said opportunity was a big factor. In each of their cases, those high school coding classes provided the setting where they started to get more serious about computer science. Sterly even got a chance to do a second AP programming class at her high school — something that helped her get a running start in her software engineering program at UM-Dearborn. Both agreed they can see a little of themselves in these kids.
“I’m amazed at how quickly they’re picking things up,” said Paul. “I remember when I first started coding, I felt like I was behind some of the other students, who were mostly boys, and it definitely seemed like they had done some of this stuff before. These girls seem way more fearless than I was. I could honestly see many of them doing this in college in a few years. I think the camp is exactly the kind of thing that could help get them there.”
The Girls, Golf and Gadgets program is made possible with support from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Legacy Funds at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.