The coding movement has really gathered momentum this year, with educators and governments in the UK and across the pond trying to encourage people to discover their inner geek, especially youngsters.
In the UK, much of this effort has centred around the curriculum and coding clubs. Schools are being pressured to teach programming skills as part of the general school day, while organsiations like Code Club are running after-school activities led by teachers and volunteers from the tech industry.
Over in the US, the push is being driven by Codecademy, which got some high-profile support a couple of years ago when then-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he was going to be learning how to code using the online programme, and calling on others to do the same. In its latest effort to promote IT skills, Codecademy has launched a workforce development initiative called ReskillUSA, which aims to help those who learn coding skills to actually get a relevant job afterwards.
With all this focus on coding and tech skills, the ongoing issue of the lack of women in IT has also been highlighted. The proportion of females as part of the technology workforce is still depressingly low – around 20 percent is the general estimate – and while Code Club and Codecademy are both aimed at both sexes, an added bonus of the schemes would be to see a rise in the percentage of women in IT, along with an overall rise in more skilled coders.
To further that objective, two initiatives have come to the forefront this week, aimed squarely at getting young girls into coding - and they couldn't be more different or effective in their messaging.
The first sees Disney's latest smash hit movie, Frozen, team up with Code.org to produce a module that teaches kids to code, using two popular princesses.
"Let's use code to join Anna and Elsa as they explore the magic and beauty of ice. You will create snowflakes and patterns as you ice-skate and make a winter wonderland that you can then share with your friends!", the coding site enthuses.
For those among you who don't have young kids or an inner princess to keep happy, Anna and Elsa are the two sisters from the film, who have become a worldwide phenomenom and the adored heroines for girls everywhere – I speak from experience, as someone who has just been on a nationwide hunt to find an Elsa costume for her six-year-old niece. Considering this level of Frozen obsession, the idea to team up with Disney to encourage young girls to code is a great one. And what's even better, the idea has been executed well.
Anna and Elsa are there on the site, giving easy to follow instructions on steps needed to complete each task, for example "Hi! I'm Elsa of Arendelle. Help me create a single line" or "Hi, I’m Anna of Arendelle! Let's make a square with the 'Repeat' block, which uses fewer blocks. How many times (???) should the 'Repeat' block loop the blocks inside it to make a square?". As you go through the module completing the steps, you get to Elsa or Anna moving around the screen, controlled by your instructions.
What's great about this beta coding module is that while Anna and Elsa are present in their pretty dresses, with their huge doe eyes and perfectly coiffed hair, there is no condescending language aimed at dumbing down coding for girls.
So top marks to Code.org and Disney for their efforts.
At the other end of the scale, we have toy maker Mattel, doing its best to bulldoze over the past 100 years of female emancipation. Mattel makes the much-loved and under-fed Barbie doll, and decided that the perfect way to encourage women to get more techie would be with the release of a book. In the resulting I Can be a Computer Engineer tome, Barbie thinks up a game design and looks her normal pretty self, but ultimately she needs to call on some men to do all that pesky technical stuff.
"I'm only creating the design ideas," the blonde bombshell explains in the book. "I'll need Steven and Brian's help to turn it into a real game!"
Later in the story, Barbie, who wears a USB stick for a necklace, manages to infect her friend with a virus and generally swans around not being the promised 'computer engineer' of the title at all.
If Mattel was trying to give a demonstration of the total stereotype of women and technology, the firm got it spot on. But for practical, educational purposes, the Barbie book is exactly what females don't need to see when it comes to getting more girls to consider taking IT subjects or learning to code.
Fortunately, Mattel has come to its senses and has withdrawn the Barbie book from sale. I hope anyone with young daughters who might have been exposed to it, will swiftly remedy this by sitting them in front of the Code.org site for an hour or so, or signing them up for a Code Club session.
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