Sunday, March 6, 2011

Computationally Thinking

For the last two years, I've been doing research focused around women in technology; more specifically, getting young girls interested in computing.  In all of my reading, research and interrogations, what I have determined is that "computational thinking" might just be the concept that helps bridge the gender gap.

Computational thinking is in the middle of an identity crisis right now.  The scientific population doesn't yet have a standardized definition, though one is beginning to materialize.  My view on CT differs slightly, but I elaborate on that in another post.

First, let me state that I acknowledge that not everyone fits snugly into a gender stereotype. There are certainly women that will not fit the descriptions that follow.  I don't mean to imply that anyone outside of the groups I discuss are somehow less "female," just that they are less indicative of the majority.

Formalities aside, let's address the reason why I believe that CT can help draw girls toward technology.  Bear with me, this is a bit of an indirect and bumpy ride.

The female mind is an incredible thing.  From infancy, studies show that the mind of the average female tends to be far more empathetic than that of a male.  Such empathy is an expression of a fundamental difference in the way that women solve problems.  In general, the empathetic brain looks for emotional cues and facial expressions to assess the validity of a decision, while a systematic brain (typical male brain) uses behavioral queues.  This means that machine related tasks come relatively easily for men, but leave women cold as they lack the emotive qualities that we seek.   When someone fiddles with a program or gadget and the behavior of its response changes, a man is likely to absorb that change and consider the gathered information useful.  A female brain, while easily capable of accurately taking note of the data, is less likely to have an intuitive reaction to it. 

That one difference goes a long way toward explaining why young girls consider computer science to be "hard" and "masculine."  Without emotional feedback, technology doesn't naturally fulfill a woman's instinctual learning methods. This is why we see such a large percentage of women in people-related jobs.  Even in 2009, the most popular female careers were secretaries, nurses, teachers, and cashiers.  All receive frequent face-to-face interaction which is a supplement to pay rate when considering how rewarding their job is. 

Now, take an empathetic woman with a high-desire for emotional reward and place her in a career that often requires many hours of individual performance - where the majority of her feedback comes from a compiler in cryptic, uninspired messages - and you have a recipe for a very dissatisfied employee.

By now, you're probably asking yourself why computational thinking has any effect on the above scenario.  In a word...understanding.

The beauty of an empathetic mind is the ability to sympathize with, relate to, and understand views other than those which they have previously experienced.  Computational thinking is the tool that links sympathy and the machine.

Again, I'll save my detailed beliefs on the definition of computational thinking for another day, but in short, CT is the ability to comprehend what is needed for a computer to do its job.  It's more than just a list of steps that one does to prepare code for a solution.  It is, instead, a method for understanding the needs of a computational entity so that one can either process a problem to make it solvable by computer *or* look at a problem from the viewpoint of a computer.  Either way, it's a symbiotic junction which allows a human to relate to a machine and in my opinion, that's a very important first-step toward translating "hard," "masculine" feedback into meaningful personal cues.

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