Snow Clearing and Computer Studies Enrolment

What impacts Computer Studies enrolment in Ontario?

There’s the chicken and egg problem, for one. Our courses are not prerequisites for STEM-related majors in Ontario universities… because not all secondary schools in Ontario offer Computer Studies courses. It’s hard to require a course that is not offered. That’s only going to get worse.

There’s a perception that our courses are difficult. Any student who has spent inordinate amounts of time struggling with syntax will agree that can be true (even if it’s really the tools that are deficient and not the programmer).

And then… there’s this, from the lede on a recent episode of 99% Invisible by Roman Mars, interviewing Caroline Criado Perez:

Today’s show is about a design flaw that might be, and I’m not exaggerating here, the single-most common design flaw in human history. It potentially affects everything we have ever built. Its consequences are felt by more than half of people worldwide…

What’s this now?

There’s a town in Sweden. Karlskoga. It snows there. For a long time, like many places, when it snowed, major roads were cleared first. In the process of doing a gender analysis of local town policies, someone made a joke – snow clearing. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with gender, could it?

Karlskoga city planners looked at the types of tasks women handle on a daily basis. Tasks like shuttling children to school, stopping off to pick up groceries, dropping in to check on elderly relatives. Tasks that were often completed on foot or by taking public transit on smaller residential roads.

It turns out… it’s a lot harder, and much less safe, to push a stroller through a foot of snow than it is to drive a car down a major arterial road. Karlskoga decided to clear minor roads and residential areas first, and saw a significant decrease in healthcare costs, savings that far outweighed the cost of winter road maintenance. Everyone benefits.

What if, by making deliberate choices about how we describe, promote, and deploy our Computer Studies courses, we bring in not just more young women, but more students overall to this vital field of endeavour?

Context Over Tools

I recently visited Austin, Texas to attend a weeklong workshop with teachers using Swift for instruction in the College Board’s Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles course.

The workshop was hosted by Apple, and we naturally spent time examining their curricular resources and tools.

I was pleased to see that the agenda focused not just on tools, but also on the bigger picture of inclusion in the software industry and in our classrooms. Douglas Kiang gave an excellent talk on fostering a sense of belonging for young women in computer science courses.

With permission from Douglas, I will include text from a few of his presentation slides here.

The following is an older description for a course offered at Douglas’ school:

Introduction to JavaScript (1 credit)

This course introduces students to the basics of JavaScript, HTML, 
 and CSS. It covers basic computer programming concepts such as variables, loops, operators, arrays, functions, and conditional statements. It features best practices for current web-standards compliance techniques using the HTML DOM (Document Object Model) and offers interested students the opportunity to dive deeper into asynchronous data requests using AJAX and jQuery.

The question Douglas posed: Who is your audience?

To whom does that original course description speak?

As teachers, we understand it. Would a student?

It’s kind of like seeing a course description like this:

Introduction to Japanese (1 credit)

基本クラスは、基本的な⽂文法に注意を払いながら、コミュニケーションスキル (主に会話型)を身に付けることを⽬目的としています。 中級クラスは、基本レベ ルの⽂文型を組み合わせることにより、実⽤用的な会話能⼒力力をさらに⾼高めることを⽬目 的としています。 各グループは週に1回、⽇日本⼈人ボランティアによる約90分の レッスンを受けます。 参加者のスケジュールが特定の⽇日の出席を許可しない場 合、会議は⾒見見逃される可能性があります。 授業内容は、グループの規模と参加者 の興味と能⼒力力に応じて調整されます。 基本的な焦点は、⽇日常⽣生活や勉勉強に必要な ⽇日本語の会話⼒力力を伸ばし、⽇日本の⽂文化や伝統について指導することです。

Douglas and his colleagues revised the course description to read as follows:

Building Websites for Non-Profits (1 credit + community service)

Work closely with a community organization to help design a website that meets their needs. Gain programming experience while designing a front-end web interface that retrieves data from a server. Previous projects have included an event registration page for Malama Honua, an after-school program site for the Boys and Girls Club, and a web portal for the Arcadia Retirement Residence.

Same course, same content, different description.

The result? Punahou School school saw many more young women enrol, as well as more young men.

Students in Ontario will always see the standard Ministry of Education course descriptions in official documentation.

However, it’s the very definition of picking the low hanging fruit for us, as teachers, to provide the Guidance staff, students, and parents at our schools with accessible and welcoming course descriptions, and ensure that these are made visible to students well in advance of course selection time.

How we describe what we do in our courses matters.

Build Community

For the first time in my teaching career1, the gender balance in my Computer Studies classes across grades 10 and 11 is precisely even. At last check, there are seven boys and ten girls enrolled in ICS2O; eleven boys and eight girls in ICS3U.

With few other variables in the mix, I’m left to cautiously conclude that new opportunities we offered last year at Lakefield College School have made a difference for enrolment this year.

First, in December 2018, my school partnered with the Hackergal team to participate in a hackathon. In their words:

A Hackathon is an event in which groups of people come together to solve a problem. The term is largely used in the tech industry to describe a fast-paced event in which computer programmers or “coders” work together to create a functioning product. During a Hackergal Hackathon, groups of girls work together over a day to apply coding skills they’ve learned leading up to Hackathon Day. Teams will work together to create an interactive project with a theme that is revealed on the morning of the Hackathon.

To prepare for the hackathon, we had twelve grade 9 girls complete five lessons over roughly ten hours of co-curricular time.

The Hackergal organization provided all of the preparatory material and tools free of charge, and were extremely strong communicators leading up to the event itself.

On the day of the hackathon, the girls were excused from class and completed the challenge along with a much larger group of young women across the country through an online presence.

As a strategy, advocating for and offering an event like this takes more time than re-writing course descriptions – but it created an amazing sense of community among the young women at our school before they even got to the point of considering enrolment in a computer studies course.

Provide a Trial Run

Developers often allow users to try out their software prior to asking for the commitment of a payment.

In the same vein, at LCS, we offered a coding-themed day to coincide with Computer Science Education Week. The timing here is deliberate – positioned in advance of (but not too far before) course selection on the school calendar.

On an intercession day at LCS – when the entire school has a break from regular classes, but the learning continues through other tasks – students had (among other options) the opportunity to participate in a day of coding-related activities.

Tasks offered included the creation of physical artwork by generating SVG files through code and then sending the files to a plotter:

Generating Physical Artwork Using Code

Any programming environment capable of generating an SVG file can be used to drive the output on an AxiDraw plotter.

Senior students enrolled in Computer Studies courses mentored junior students who expressed an interest in starting to prepare for computer science contests, using online coding environments like repl.it and past problems published by the CEMC.

Another option saw students use Processing to explore introductory tutorials explaining how to produce graphics and animations, with more experienced students digging into the work of generative artists or simulating natural systems.

The centrepiece of the day involved a visit from a Dr. Rachel Wortis from Trent University who gave a hands-on talk about encryption and quantum computing.

The day, to be honest, was a lot of work to organize, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

In the future, we plan to run a similar day at LCS, but may make more use of externally sourced content that does not necessarily involve coding, such as the popular CS50 Puzzle Day authored by David J. Malan and his team at Harvard, or the College Puzzle Challenge provided by Microsoft.

The theme of the series of activities was to provide students with a taste of what computer studies is all about before those students need to make a choice about course selection.

How we promote computer studies matters.

Positive Role Models

When it comes to recruiting women into computer science, whether a role model projects current stereotypes of the field may be more important than whether that role model is female or male. Role models may be successful if they elicit a sense of belonging.2

Douglas Kiang emphasized those points during his talk in Austin in July.

During that same intercession day in early December at LCS we arranged for several graduates of my past classes to speak with current students through video chats.

The speakers – two young women, three young men – do not all exclusively write code in their positions. None hew to Hollywood hacker stereotypes. Of the speakers we were fortunate to ask questions of:

  • two are developers at Apple (iPhone and Watch teams)
  • one is an analyst at KPMG
  • one is a project manager at Yelp
  • the final speaker works in a variety of roles exploring the intersection of visual arts, business, and technology (she is about to graduate from this fascinating program at USC)

Of course, I had not yet heard Douglas make his point when I organized speakers. What he said resonated, however, and the response from LCS students was positive.

A young woman takes part in a video chat with current high school students.

Question and Answer

A past graduate of my computer studies classes talks with current LCS students.

The key here – whether we find role models in past students, parents in a school’s community, or members of the public – it is helpful to show current students where our courses lead – before they are asked to decide on course selection.

Embrace the Depth of the Field

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ve noticed that I have used the term computer studies throughout this article – not computer science.

That is deliberate – the former is a superset of the latter.

Computer studies is about how computers compute. It is not about learning how to use the computer, and it is much more than computer programming. Computer studies is the study of ways of representing objects and processes. It involves defining problems; analysing problems; designing solutions; and developing, testing, and maintaining programs. For the purposes of this document, the term computer studies refers to the study of computer science, meaning computer and algorithmic processes, including their principles, their hardware and software designs, their applications, and their impact on society.3

Is that quote familiar?

If you’re a teacher in Ontario, it should be – it’s from page 3 of the Ontario Computer Studies curriculum!

That bit of rhetorical flourish exists in this article with feeling.

I know that it is not easy to be a teacher, let alone a Computer Studies teacher.

However, if all that we focus on are algorithms, code, and tools – if we address but don’t emphasize the rest of the curriculum – we are doing our students a grave disservice.

Over March Break this year, the Hackergal organization ran a terrific one-day workshop for teachers. The highlight was hearing from a panel of dynamic women working in the software industry:

One common theme that emerged from the comments of the panelists was that they all started in the field of computer studies after high school4.

Why was that? The specific examples varied, of course, but the gist? Computer studies classes in their schools focused nearly entirely on writing code, and there was little to no emphasis on the idea that computer studies is ultimately about talking to people to identify problems and finding ways to solve those problems using technology.

Look, we know Apple has an excellent marketing team – but this video nails it:

At my school, I am working to build a three-year computer studies program that provides the full experience of problem solving and software development. I want students to graduate having published meaningful applications with a portfolio of code they can use when speaking to prospective future clients or employers.

So, in grade 10 this past year, we started early, working deliberately to improve our skill in offering an effective critique of each others’ work.

Ron Berger’s book, An Ethic of Excellence, is well worth your time – a brief but powerful text on how to guide students in creating meaningful, high-quality products.

I like to use this video, featuring Ron, to introduce effective critique to my students:

Eyes roll when my students see the age of the children in the video, but they are wowed by the end.

As the year progressed, we practiced running usability trials for software that my students had authored, of the sort described here:

I make a point of building the opportunity for feedback and revision into the timeline of a task. This figure is instructive:

A diagram illustration steps in the design process.

The design process is described in the preamble to the Ontario Technological Education curriculum.

Here is one example of the outline and rubric for a task in Introduction to Computer Studies. This was filled out incrementally for every student as they submitted each required deliverable.

That rubric may look a little different than you’re used to – I am not fond of the traditional four-column rubric. I recommend taking a look at John Rampelt’s deep dive into single-point rubrics.

After gaining confidence with software tools like Alice and Thunkable, and giving and receiving effective feedback first within our own class, then with students in other classes at LCS, I felt that my grade 10 students were ready to work within our local community.

Through a collabration with two amazing teachers at a nearby elementary school, each my grade 10 students were tasked with being a contractor for a group of two to three grade 4 students. Based on requirements provided by the younger students, students in my class would design, prototype, and deliver a custom educational application.

My students visited the grade 4 classes a total of four times to:

  1. Meet their clients and document their requirements.
  2. Present a paper prototype and receive feedback on their design.
  3. Present a functioning, but incomplete, software prototype, and receive feedback on their work to date.
  4. Deliver the final application.

Each visit lasted about forty-five minutes, and was spaced approximately two weeks apart on the calendar.

The younger students asked for a wide variety of applications, including ideas like:

  • a game that makes learning the Cartesian co-ordinate system fun
  • a narrative where aliens landed and the student must find a way to prevent their family from being abducted
  • an interactive hockey game, where correctly answering occasional math facts gave each player greater speed and dexterity when moving the puck

Here are some photos from our visits to the elementary school:

A grade four student operates a computer while a grade ten student looks on.

An older student looks on while the younger student provides usability feedback. Photo by Will Callaghan.

Two grade four students manipulate an iPhone while a grade ten points out some functionality.

Thunkable allowed my students to produce apps that ran on mobile devices for the younger students. Photo by Will Callaghan.

Two younger students listen while an older students explains some code running on a computer.

An LCS student explains how some of the code he wrote works. Photo by Will Callaghan.

A teacher observes two younger students trying out a hockey game written by an LCS student.

Good humour while a prototype of an interactive hockey game is demonstrated. Photo by Will Callaghan.

The hope was that by engaging with an external audience in a fairly authentic manner, my students would be motivated intrinsically to do their very best for this culminating task in the course.

Mario Treasure Hunt

The completed version of the game that teaches Cartesian co-ordinates through play.

What was the response like from my Grade 10 students?

Here are some comments offered through an anonymous end-of-year survey:

This culminating task was more meaningful because it was more interesting and realistic. I felt like I was doing a real job and I loved working with the kids.

Another offered:

For me, this culminating task was more meaningful, because I got to actually talk to people and it felt like I was really communicating with a user. Being with kids who have a lot of ideas was also helpful because then I could make my game more specific.

There were other similar responses.

100% of my students felt a similar culminating task should run in this course next year.

All of this makes it clear to me that how we deploy our courses – how we ask our students to demonstrate their mastery of expectations – matters a lot.

Conclusion

As described in the episode of 99% Invisible, it was not the benefits to residents of Karlskoga, or the town’s bottom line, that was the point.

It’s that well-intentioned city planners actually forgot to remember that women exist.

This would never have happened were there equitable gender representation in the city planner’s office.

The podcast episode describes several other examples of real harm that has come to women due to design that neglects to consider fifty percent of our planet’s population.

We cannot let the same thing happen in the software industry.

As teachers, we have a moral imperative to do everything we can to make our computer studies classes welcoming to young women and to other under-represented groups.


  1. Talking about historical gender balance in my Computer Studies classes is complicated by the fact that while I have been a teacher at co-ed schools, I have also taught at an all-girls and an all-boys school. In Canada, some might call that a hat trick. ^
  2. Cheryan, Sapna, Benjamin J. Drury, and Marissa Vichayapai. “Enduring Influence of Stereotypical Computer Science Role Models on Women’s Academic Aspirations.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 37, no. 1 (March 2013): 72–79. doi:10.1177/0361684312459328. ^
  3. The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 10 to 12, Computer Studies (Revised) (Toronto: Ministry of Education, 2008), 3. ^
  4. Except Riya Karumanchi, who is still in high school – but she is a pretty amazing special case. ^