This post is published as part of international Ada Lovelace Day.
Twenty-five years ago, I learned to program in BASIC. The school library had a single computer, tucked under a beam near the entrance to the room. There it did not disrupt the aesthetic created by the rows and rows of books and a quiet area where students settle in on couches and plug headphones into consoles that played vinyl records. The unit in BASIC came courtesy of the principal, who doubled as an honors math teacher and had an eccentric fondness for these machines.
By the end of college, I had abandoned programming: I walked away from my CS 105 assignment with the unfinished code on the screen, called my friend Maria, and told her I’d be joining her on the trip to the Southern California run of Dead shows after all. Upon return to school on Monday, I officially switched into a “computers for humanities majors” class.
It wasn’t that I believed programming was “not for girls.” Rather, I thought, “What’s the point?” I had a professor who gave an exciting promise, apparently directed as the geekier young men in the audience: “Twenty years from now, you’ll be able to really impress your dates by pulling out a computer and selecting the best wine to go with the dinner you’re about to eat.”
So…the woman in tech I admire today: Caitlin Kelleher, co-creator of Storytelling Alice, an educational tool for imparting programming skills to middle-school girls in the context of writing stories. In other words, she adopted the premise that the root of girls’ fabled disinterest in computers is not that they can’t dress them up or something … it’s that young girls may not be so captivated as boys by the prospect of tinkering for its own sake.
Dr. Kelleher writes at her faculty page for Washington University in St. Louis:
“As my thesis work, I created and evaluated a programming system for middle school girls called Storytelling Alice that presents programming as a means to the end of storytelling. Storytelling Alice includes high-level animations that enable users to program social interactions, a gallery of characters and scenery designed to spark story ideas, and a story-based tutorial. To evaluate the impact of storytelling support on girls’ motivation and learning, I compared girls’ experiences using Storytelling Alice and a version of Alice without storytelling support (Generic Alice). Results of the study suggest that girls are more motivated to learn programming using Storytelling Alice; study participants who used Storytelling Alice spent 42% more time programming and were more than three times as likely to sneak extra time to work on their programs as users of Generic Alice (16% of Generic Alice users and 51% of Storytelling Alice users snuck extra time).”
I pointed my ‘tween niece to Storytelling Alice. She’s been writing screenplays and comics since she was 6 or 7. Child of the media-saturated 21st century that she is, she comes to me for advice on getting her scripts into the hands of television producers.
In preparing for this post, I asked her mother how she liked it. The response: “She did it all the time for a few months, created a bunch of stories. But she says it’s too simple … she thinks it’ll get much more interesting after their integration with the Sims.”
For more information on the Alice project, visit its site.