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Update from the NCWIT Meeting

I just attended the May meeting of the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT). NCWIT is now 5 years old. The organization has two main goals: to increase the number of girls and women in computing and to make diversity in computing matter to individuals, organizations, and society.

The meeting had some wonderful talks. We heard from Vivian Lagesen who is researching why some countries, such as Malaysian, have a much higher percentage of women in computing than we do in western countries. She found several important differences.

1) The government ran a campaign to encourage women to enter computing fields.
2) The parents encourage the girls to enter computing fields.
3) The field is not considered to be a "male" field.

The researcher said that the women in Malaysia found it very hard to believe that computing is considered male in western cultures. They couldn't see why it would be perceived that way since you work indoors and sit. Roli Varma also told of research in India which shows that women there think of computing as a lucrative and female-friendly field. People who are in the field in India are considered to be smart and social.

Several speakers described projects that help the developing world. Bernadine Dias, the founder of TechBridgeWorld at CMU described the development of a low-cost digital device for blind kids to practice writing in Braille. It was very inspirational.

Joi Spencer talked about an intensive study into the differences between math education in the United States and other higher performing nations. One of the biggest differences was in how we teach math to students. In Japan for example the students are introduced to a new mathematical concept by leaning about a complex problem that they are asked to solve. The students spend many days thinking about the problem and trying to solve it in different ways. Then they might learn a new procedure for solving the problem. In the United States we first teach students the procedure for solving problems and have them practice but we rarely ask them to use it to solve a complex problem. Kids in the United States are also often taught that there is only one way to solve a problem. My own daughter, for example, gets mad at me when I try to show her more than one way to solve a math problem. She says, "the teacher wants us to do it this way."

NCWIT has also produced many high quality materials for teachers and parents. The Talking Points card, for example, provides suggestions and information for family members who want to talk to girls about computing. NCWIT also evaluates techniques for introducing girls to computing and have identified promising practices such as CS Unplugged, Scratch, Alice, and Media Computation. You might want to show your students some of the slides from some of the talks from this last meeting. You can download these resources and more from


Barb Ericson
CSTA Board Member
Co-chair, NCWIT K-12 Alliance


Several thoughts passed through my mind as I re-read your post. I think that what you described are symptoms of a deep disorder: the American public school system has become a testing factory. As someone who sits through endless meetings and teacher training sessions, I can tell you that the focus is on the test: hence, Americans think that a course should be relevant to the student because it is rigorous. But, right-thinking people who love this profession know otherwise: if a course of study is relevant to a student, rigor will naturally follow.

I cannot think of any other content area ("core content" that is, because unless you're teaching a core content area, you're not "highly qualified") where this disorder has caused more damage than mathematics. Put yourself in the place of a test-writer: math is all about the right answer, right?

Last night I attended our school's 5% Dinner. This is an annual rite-of-passage where the top 5% of the graduating class invites teachers to a dinner where they (the students) give short speeches explaining how this particular teacher positively impacted their academic careers.

I was the only Computer Science teacher in that room (and have been for the last few years). In fact, I was the only "math" teacher in that room. I am proud to say that I have more than a few strong female students who have gone on to study mathematics and computer science. I don't take credit for this. But I will say that I have always lead with relevance---not unlike that teaching situation you described in your post.

Now the sad irony here is that mathematics (and, by extension computing science) is, or should be, fundamentally relevant and intrinsically interesting because it is about the world at large.

I don't see students in other countries where math and CS are integrated into their curricula wringing their hands about test scores or any such nonsense. Maybe that is why they are poised to prosper while the good old US continues to play politics in the classroom at the our expense.



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