Fighting the IT gender gap: schoolgirls are shown how to crack the code

Sneha Joseph, of Gracemount High, hugs Pepper the robot

It’s all about embracing an industry that hasn’t traditionally favoured females.

Secondary school girls from across Scotland learned how to code and instruct robots after taking part in a computer science open day hosted by female students and academics at Heriot-Watt University.

The event was created specifically to help generate an interest in computing, artificial intelligence and robotics in girls from a young age.

It comes against a backdrop of a chronic shortage of women currently employed in or studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (Stem subjects) in the UK.

Figures from Skills Development Scotland show that fewer than one in every eight (13%) UK jobs in Stem are held by women, and just 27% of women who study a related subject pursue a career in Stem.

Beath High School pupils (L to R) Nicole Hunter, Abigail Humphries and Kelis Allison strike a pose with Pepper

At the event last week,  pupils from George Watson’s College and Gracemount High School in Edinburgh, Beath High School in Fife, and Stirling High were given an overview of Heriot-Watt’s latest research, and a demonstration of exhibits from the university’s 50-year computer science history, including a chance to interact with Pepper, its in-house humanoid robot, and being taught how to programme a mobile app.

The MIT App Inventor session, led by female computer science students, used a graphical interface to provide a fun and interactive way to create a basic, fully functional app within an hour, which pupils could then run from their smartphones.

Rhianna Still, a fourth-year pupil at George Watson’s College, has chosen to study computer science. She said: “I liked the App session and the aspect I liked most was that you can programme your own App. I just like how you can make something and how other people can use it. The most interesting part for me was the coding when you put the scratch-box together.”

Eileen Young (above), a BSc computer systems student, was one of nine who helped lead the session. She said: “App Inventor is a simple drag-and-drop system for coding Android devices. It lets the girls make their own programmes and see it on their own phones. It allows them to understand that technology is not just about the nitty gritty of coding.”

Shona McAlpine, a computing science teacher at Stirling High School, was joined by four pupils at the event and said: “It’s really important for pupils to see what’s happening outside the classroom and learn about the different options in computing science through events like Heriot-Watt’s.”

Stirling High pupils (L to R) Kathryn McKrell, Katrione Blair, India Simpson, Elle Morton, with Pepper

Professor Fairouz Kamareddine, of the School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences at Heriot-Watt, welcomed the girls to the open day. She said: “There’s been a lot of research on the gender gap between boys and girls which is a phenomenon around the world.

“In general, what the girls have been brought up to believe – and their parents have been brought up to believe – is that boys do better. There’s also not many well-known role models, but there are many hugely successful computer scientists who are female.

“The first programming language was designed by a female computer scientist, Ada Lovelace, two centuries ago. Women have contributed to the synching, design and engineering of computers and we hope to encourage more into computer science through events like our open day.

“The girls were excited by the computers, robots, history and our old computers which showed them how they have evolved from the past to now, because they all have in their pockets tiny mobile phones which are much more powerful than the computers we had 30 years ago.”

The open day was part of Heriot-Watt’s Year of Robotics, a calendar of events that span schools, the public, academia, industry collaborators, funders and policy-makers.

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