What real-world problems do girls want to solve using computing?
03 June 2020
In the next article in our series about gender balance in computing, Katharine Childs explores the use of computing for social good to solve real-world problems.
Solving real-world problems is at the heart of the English computing curriculum. The very first paragraph of the programme of study sets out why computing is an important subject, explaining that: “A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world”. The pervasiveness of computing in everyday life means that there are many different ways to connect classroom learning to the world around us. We heard from some young women about the types of real-world problems that they are interested in solving. This article will explore these problems and offer some ideas to help you incorporate problem-solving for social good in your computing lessons.
We spoke to Jessie (17), an A level computer science student at The Douay Martyrs Catholic Secondary School in north London, to find out what she thought computing could be used for in everyday life. Jessie explained that a big reason that she chose to study A level computer science was that she liked using her programming skills to find solutions to problems. Her interest was sparked by the NEA (non-examined assessment) component of her GCSE computer science course, in which she wrote a coin counting program that checked the weight of bags of coins to verify that they contained the correct amount. According to Jessie, “Computer science makes so much of life more interesting. It gives us new ways of communicating, and new ways of researching, as well as new ways of playing and interacting!”
In Jessie’s example, the coin counting problem was chosen by the exam board for her to work on. In some lessons, preselecting the problem can increase the cognitive load experienced by pupils, as they are required to work out both the contextual information and the programming concepts required for a solution. This can be mitigated by allowing learners to choose a real-world problem that they are interested in solving. This is the approach taken by Apps for Good, a UK charity that delivers free creative technology courses to help learners develop apps or explore machine learning models.
The annual Apps for Good Awards are a chance for teams to showcase how they have researched issues in their school, community, or in society, and designed an innovative prototype product to meet the need that they have identified. Teams can be all-boys, mixed, or all-girls. We took a look at some of the award-winning projects created by all-girls teams and found some interesting themes:
- Education: Some teams had created products to support learning, such as an app to help with GCSE science experiments, and an English–Bengali translation tool to help families and teachers communicate at parents’ evenings.
- Healthy living: Several apps addressed issues faced by children and young adults, including raising awareness about period poverty, helping young people learn about sexuality and gender, and providing helpful and friendly information about puberty.
- Science: A team of two girls from Scotland had an idea to use machine learning–powered ultrasounds for early detection of health conditions in the foetus during pregnancy.
- Environment: One team created a machine learning project that aimed to tackle plastic pollution by scanning items, finding out about the plastic they contained, and then suggesting where to recycle them.
Several research studies have identified that solving real-world problems can be highly engaging for girls, and can help to increase their interest in computing. To incorporate problem-solving for social good in your computing lessons, you could consider the following three suggestions.
Identify opportunities to provide solutions within the school community
Computing doesn’t have to be just about writing code; there are lots of different ways for pupils to develop their information technology skills. For example, pupils could create a school survey, collate the data, and display the results in a spreadsheet. Topical school issues can be combined with digital literacy skills to create podcasts, stop-motion animations, or videos that report on news and share facts.
Use physical computing to connect the digital world and the real world
The Micro:bit Educational Foundation runs regular challenges that highlight Global Goals, a set of 17 internationally agreed goals to make the world more fair, just, and equal by the year 2030. Pupils could also take part in the annual European Astro Pi Challenge, an ESA Education project run in collaboration with the Raspberry Pi Foundation that offers young people the opportunity to conduct scientific experiments in space.
Bring legal and ethical issues into classroom discussions about computing
Primary school teachers can link computing, English, and PSHE to create rich cross-curricular activities in which pupils debate questions such as “Should I trust everything I read on the web?” Secondary school teachers can hold discussions about the real-world concerns surrounding technology. You can build your skills in engaging learners in relevant, open, and exciting discussions through the free online course Impact of Technology: How To Lead Classroom Discussions.
Research has shown that when computing provides pupils with a social purpose and the opportunity to help other people, girls are more likely to view the subject as important and attractive, and consider it as an option for further study. This will then have an impact on the gender balance in industry, and in turn, in the development of the technological solutions of tomorrow, which will help make the world a better place for everyone.
Take part in our programme
Due to the recent school closures, the Gender Balance in Computing programme is not currently running any live trials. You can still read about our programme, and register your interest in taking part, by visiting our homepage though!