What made the girls stay back?

Women used to run the world, or at least the computing world. It remains a bit of curious history as to why they dropped off the radar – but that’s work for other people to do. Our job is to inspire and kickstart people’s interest in coding – and make it fun for them while they are at it!

Code for Communities (Nanyang Girls' High School, 20 July 2016) from Code for Asia Society on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago, I started preparing the material for a MIT App Inventor workshop at Nanyang Girls’ High (NYGH). My fear was that it would be too difficult to sustain the interest of a class of over 30 teenagers, and to pitch the workshop at an appropriate level. If the tutorial was too simple, they would be bored, and if it was too hard, they may be discouraged and give up altogether.

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The initial plan was to teach them how to make a simple pet simulation app, with a cat that makes a “meow” sound when it is tapped by the user. For the advanced students, they could go on to program the cat to tell their “fortune” by picking a random prediction from a list when the user types in a question.

I also wanted to teach a bit of Python, so that they could see how the same process of picking a prediction would look like in code. The user-friendly interface of the MIT App Inventor could be a stepping stone to understanding terms such as variables, data types, and lists.

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Imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to see that the girls did not simply follow the tutorial, but also came up with a variety of ways to personalise their app. One girl changed the cat picture to a photo of her favourite Korean star, and another changed the app to be able to “predict” your exam grade.

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The process of app creation was a novelty to most of them. They laughed, joked, and shared their whacky creations with their friends. Some of them went on to make even more challenging apps such as whack-a-mole by using the online resources from the App Inventor website.

One workshop participant, Claire, said that “what I enjoyed the most was the freedom to make anything you wanted ‘come alive’ in a sense and with the help of coding, this can be made into a possibility.”

Many expressed further interest in learning programming languages. Another girl, Jade, said that “I learnt that coding can be simple and enjoyable.”

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It reminded me of my first foray into coding at the start of this year, when I took an introductory course in Python. I had doubted my ability to pick up coding at first, but as the weeks went on, I found myself enjoying my assignments so much that I sacrificed sleep to complete all the extra credit. It is such a thrill to be able to test your own programs and not run into any errors, knowing you have created something that works.

As an educational tool, coding is a great creative outlet and a way to improve logical thinking and problem solving skills. In this age of automation, I am surprised that coding literacy is not an essential skill taught in schools. These Nanyang girls actually stayed back after their regular classes to learn how to code! I hope that they can continue to find supportive environments that allow them to explore their interests.