Coding Options and Opportunities for Canadian Kids (especially Girls)
When Kate Arthur founded Kids Code Jeunesse (KCJ) in 2013, it was all around the power of communication.
“I realized that my ability was limited because I wasn't able to code,” she said, reminiscing on the early aughts. “I couldn't speak the language of technology.”
Arthur witnessed her primary school-aged girls consume technology and quickly realized she needed to accelerate her family’s coding education as a way to communicate directly, remain creators and stay current in an unfolding industrial revolution.
“Our schools were not keeping up with the education that [students] needed [to be] socially and economically engaged citizens, able to create and communicate in their world.”
She had to act.
Ten years later, Arthur doesn’t have to explain what coding means anymore, or why it matters.
Coding has been integrated into Canadian classrooms — as has the near-total awareness that this is a sought-after skill, poised to open doors in personal career trajectories, competitive economic markets and in the arts and cultural industries.
Opting out of technological education these days is like opting out of an increasingly digital society.
A foundational philosophy hasn’t changed for KCJ in the past decade (although the Canadian charity rebranded as Digital Moment, expanding their skillbuilding portfolio to artificial intelligence, algorithm and data literacy, social impact and ethics): the next generation should be creators, and not just consumers, of technology.
What has changed is the multitude of platforms and options now available to Canadian children to learn, whether they are coding in a classroom or at home.
“We were behind but now [Canada is] moving ahead with coding and teachers are getting training,” said Arthur, of the general outlook for the 2022-2023 school year. “COVID also accelerated adoption, momentum and awareness of the power of technology.”
The main factors for success in terms of coding education haven't changed much either, she added: “you need to start [children] young, pre pubescent, and it has to be [taught] in the public, primary school systems.
“It also has to be integrated in a purposeful and collaborative environment.”
Co-opt an existing interest
The good thing about coding today is that it's never been more accessible, with varying points of entry for young learners virtually everywhere.
“Code finds its way into surprising places,” said Kimberley Vircoe, the Program Owner for KCJ’s online series Code Create Play, designed for 8 to 12-year-olds. Art, storytelling, sports, music, sciences, fashion (and basically any other interest you or your child can think of) are entryways into coding literacy.
In 2018, for example, KCJ teamed up with the National Basketball Association for a series of coding workshops called Hoops & Loops, where kids who loved sports were introduced to digital skills through building pedometers and modifying the jumbotron.
“What’s really exciting is that cultural or creative expression [a person] can bring to coding,” said Arthur. “In the history of innovation, the sciences and the arts combine. We do a great disservice by separating the two.”
Make it fun
The proverb ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ also seems to apply to digital skill building (regardless of gender). For kids to sustain interest in coding, especially at a young age when it is critical to engage them, it has to be fun.
Luckily, scores of coding games for boys and girls have cropped up in the past few years. Some recent WIRED magazine recommendations for young people include the following:
- Scratch, “the world’s largest free coding community for kids,” allows them to create stories, games and animations to share with others.
- Tynker is a drag-and-drop block program featuring coding puzzles and playgrounds that teach computer science fundamentals.
- Code Monkey teaches CoffeeScript and Python through block-based and text-based game-like environments. It also offers educational resources for a K-8 curriculum.
- Kodable helps kids build a foundation of core programming concepts, with two tracks for kids aged 4-7 and 7-10.
- Hopscotch is for kids who love being on a phone or iPad, allowing them to create apps and play games, learning fundamental concepts along the way. The award-winning coding platform is designed for kids aged 10-16.
- Roblox is probably the most famous recent online game phenomenon for kids. The platform and creation system allows users to program and play games created by other users, and the company has developed learning experiences for teachers who are keen to use it in the classroom.
Pay particular attention to girls
“We never separate the genders [in our programming] because it’s really important for girls to feel confidence in front of boys that they can do this, and it’s really important for boys to see that girls can do this too,” said Arthur.
But no one can deny that the trends on parity continue to be stubborn and worrying.
According to Government of Canada statistics, women make up less than one quarter of the people employed in STEM careers.
And in a 2021 Up the Numbers report from Women in Communications and Technology, Canadian gender ratios in technology persist and, in fact, participation rates of women in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector have been in a slow decline since 2011.
So what can be done to reverse these numbers?
Start young. Study after study demonstrates a strong K-12 educational experience is hugely important. Students, especially 11 to 17-year-olds start out with an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) but that interest lessens with age.
|A 2022 Randstad survey found 11 to 14-year olds are 18% more likely than 15-17 year old students to consider math a favourite subject.|
Make the skills significant. An oft-cited 2014 Swedish study highlighted the importance of creating meaning and relevance in the digital curriculum — and paying special attention to girls along the way.
“In the case of girls, interest drops markedly in later grades,” it found. “Teaching needs to be conducted so that both girls and boys perceive it as meaningful… connect to a greater degree to the students’ everyday life, future study, professional life, as well as to the society that surrounds us, in order to create interest.”
Develop mentorship opportunities. “We still don’t have many female math teachers, robotics teachers or teachers in [STEM roles] demonstrating to young girls that they can do this or understand how to support the girls if they are outnumbered on a team,” said Arthur.
“How do you make sure that girl is heard? That she has support? And she’s given the voice and space to create in it? A lot of [adults] don’t know how to manage that or give the support that’s required, and so girls drop off.”
Fortunately, there are many community groups showing girls and young women they belong in this space.
- Girls Who Code is on a mission to close the gender gap in technology in Canada. The NPO teaches girls computer science, bravery and sisterhood, with chapters across the country.
- Canada Learning Code wants Canada to be ready for the digital world. It designs, delivers and partners on technology education, with a particular focus on women, girls, people with disabilities, Indigenous youth and newcomers. Check out Canada Learning Code Week 2022: December 5-11 (in person and virtual).
- Imagi is a mobile-first community that aims to give “coding superpowers” to 300 million pre-teen girls and nonbinary kids worldwide. It makes learning Python fun and relevant through creative self-expression, confidence in coding skills and community.
- InspiringFifty is a global mentorship initiative on a mission to increase diversity in tech. They have developed The New Girl Code, a series of novels about the wonders of working in tech that are aimed at girls and young women.
- Stemettes: a community and intersectional program series across the UK, Ireland and beyond that supports the next generation of girls and non-binary people aged 5 to 25 into STEM careers.
- And here’s a roundup of 25 Organizations Teaching Women Coders & Girls Around the Globe, providing paid, free, virtual or live-on-location opportunities.
Arthur is still hopeful that a recent turn towards “tech for good” will encourage more girls and young women to adopt the tools to create a better world.
The gamification, free online opportunities and available resources can’t hurt either.