Want more girls interested in STEM? Retrain music and dance teachers to run computer science lessons, say educators

Music and dance teachers who are respected by female pupils should be trained to teach computer science to inspire more girls to pursue a career in the technology sector, educators have said.

More than 150 teachers and schoolgirls recently attended an event at Microsoft’s UK headquarters designed to show young women what life at a technology company was like.

Speaking just weeks after the Government used its Budget to announce significant funding to support the training of Computer Science teachers, Cindy Rose, the chief executive of Microsoft UK, kicked off this year’s DigiGirlz by highlighting the lack of women in the technology sector.

Educators told Microsoft at the event that school leaders needed to create more positive role models in computer science and give them modern classrooms to work in if the UK was to encourage more women to pursue a career in science, engineering, technology or maths (STEM).

Cindy Rose, Microsoft UK Chief Executive, chats to schoolgirls at the DigiGirlz event

Cindy Rose, Microsoft UK Chief Executive, chats to schoolgirls at the DigiGirlz event

“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always had a female member of the [computer science] teaching staff. That makes a huge difference,” said Peter Marshman, Head of Computer Science at Leighton Park School in Reading – a mixed school for 11 to 18-year-olds.

“It also comes down to the personality of the teacher. It’s not necessarily about getting the best coding teachers, it’s about getting teachers who can relate to girls. If we had music or dance teachers teaching computer science, it would be completely different. But it’s that cycle: we haven’t got enough girls going into computing, which means they aren’t taking a degree in computing, which means they don’t then want to become teachers, or go into industry and don’t become teachers, and we don’t have enough role models.

“There is a teaching crisis in computer science at the moment, we know that. We need to look at what we have got retaining teachers and what can we do to make those differences that will make more girls go into it.”

His view was supported by Anthony Golden, Computing and ICT teacher at Park House School in Newbury, who said he and a colleague had to teach computing to 1,500 pupils. He regularly sees computer science classes dominated by boys in his mixed school for 11 to 18-year-olds.

Girls look at Microsoft Surface device

DigiGirlz is designed to show young women what life at a technology company is like

“You need teachers that can inspire, but if you can code really well, you won’t be in teaching, you’ll be in a company doing software development,” he said. “What needs to happen is an upgrading of skills for teachers to take on computer science. It could be a six-week programme for schools that teaches how to be a computer science teacher. That would take away the fear. Everyone is trying to do it on their own, and the first time they look at HTML they go “ah, I can’t do that”, but it’s the easiest thing in the world. It’s the same with Micro:bits [small, programmable computers that teach people the basics of coding].

“All those doors need opening. We need that in the background, because no matter what we do to inspire girls to do more, if the infrastructure isn’t there, they can’t.”

DigiGirlz has given thousands of girls aged 12 and 13 an insight into the roles, staff and working environment at Microsoft. Held every twice a year at Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading, the day is designed to give the girls a better understanding of careers in the sector through talks, hands-on learning and teamwork. This year, they heard from women in a range of roles at the company, used Micro:bits to code, and worked in teams to design and build a model of a road safety system in a “Maker Challenge”. This last part forms part of Microsoft’s Digital Skills Programme, and encourages people to earn badges while completing computing and engineering activities.

CIndy Rose with some of the DigiGirlz participants

CIndy Rose with some of the DigiGirlz participants

Research from Microsoft has found that there is a five-year window in every girl’s life to grow their interest in STEM before it starts to wane. Young women in the UK become interested in STEM subjects just before the age of 11 but this drops sharply when they turn 16. Separate research released by Microsoft in the past week showed that creativity is linked to an interest in STEM. Just over 54% of schoolgirls considered themselves to be very or extremely creative, falling to 53.7% for students and 47.3% for professionals.

Twelve-year-old Ava, who attends Leighton Park School, said the latest DigiGirlz event had “opened my eyes” to what was on offer in the technology sector and had given her role models to look up to.

“It’s a great way to get girls to know about these experiences now before their brains shut off to this world that they can be a part of. It’s a great teambuilding exercise, as well.”

The girls used Micro:bits to code

The girls used Micro:bits to code

Ava’s teacher, Peter Marshman, said events like DigiGirlz were crucial for building confidence among girls. He added that they also helped to show youngsters what life was really like at a technology company; and computer science classrooms had to be updated to make the subject more accessible and accurately reflect what modern workplaces were really like.

“You need leadership if you want girls to go into STEM,” he said. “If your headteacher or deputy headteacher doesn’t believe in it, it’s hard. It’s their responsibility to give kids the skills they need for their generation of jobs. If you think of the computer rooms, they have PCs in lines or in banks. Who works like that? Then kids are told not to touch their computer or not to get out of their chair.

“We have come here today [to Microsoft] and we see the environment – people are moving around. This event is here to kickstart schools to take it forward. Computer rooms at schools get refurbished but it’s the same old structure. We should have open environments. There might be someone in the room who is really good at apps, or testing, or is just really creative; you want that kid to see other people and sit with them, then you have two people trying to solve a problem. Kids would enjoy STEM a lot more if they could see the collaborative side of it. But school computer rooms are designed for how coding was in the 1980s and 1990s.”

More than 150 teachers and schoolgirls attended the DigiGirlz event

More than 150 teachers and schoolgirls attended the DigiGirlz event

Among the announcements made in the Budget last month, the Chancellor promised to triple the number of fully-qualified computer science teachers from 4,000 to 12,000. The move was welcomed by Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Rose, who pointed out that teachers needed more support to ensure children learn the right digital skills to maintain the UK’s position as one of the world’s top tech economies.

“Technology is already a huge part of your lives,” Rose told the pupils at the DigiGirlz event. “But trust me when I tell you that in the future it’s going to be an even bigger part of your life. Technology is changing so fast, and it’s going to fundamentally change the way we learn, the way we live our lives and the way we work. You could be a scientist curing cancer, or a farmer, or a charity worker tracking endangered animals, you could be just about anything and I guarantee you will be using technology – not so much the technology of today, but the technology of the future.

“You have an opportunity; your generation is going to shape our world.”