Robots! Self driving cars! 3D makeup! New Zealand Women in Innovation Summit

“Peter said he was going to do this thing called Lord of the Rings and they were going to need a thousand or so animators, maybe more.”

Nobody really believed him (except maybe people like Frances Valintine who went on to start the Media Design School where I first learned about database applications and code), and if they did, how could we translate that into training and jobs for people?

Frances set the scene for the Inaugural Women In innovation Summit when she opened with her Peter Jackson story: we need to predict and train for future roles not current ones and we aren’t doing very well at it. On Tuesday, I was fortunate to participate in the Inaugural Women in Innovation Summit in Auckland. Hosted by The National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women, (NACEW) is an advisory body to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. The event was at MindLab by Unitec, a new specialist education lab in Auckland.

Minister of Women’s Affairs Hon Jo Goodhew terrified us all with news that the top job choices for girls leaving school in the 1970s hasn’t really changed: flight attendants, hairdressers, nurses, office workers, teachers and vet nurses still dominate the lists. Lawyers got a bump with LA Law and all the crime stuff on TV like CSI but not a sausage for computer science or the other STEM fields (ok- some CSI and medicine from ER but not a big movement). 

So what are we going to do about it?

Equipped with flip charts, marker pens and coffee, we set out to fix things by identifying what practical things could be done to promote opportunities and remove barriers for women aka half the population in employment.  I have to admit, the government talk-fest alarms started to go off in me at this point but I figure it has to be more constructive than the people who moan in the news about people from overseas ‘stealing’ all the jobs at Weta Workshop, PETER TOLD YOU THAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. 

The usual stuff came up, (I did my Masters thesis on this womansy career stuff so I won’t bore you with all that) but what was a real stand out for me was having actual kids in classes next to us building remote controlled cars and robots. I guess my focus had always been tertiary education and career paths rather than simply that little girls aren’t encouraged into non-traditional roles and that at some weird level, computers and engineering technologies are still seen as a boys thing. When you see a class of kids putting little circle wheels on big rectangle car bodies and making it go zoom zoom, you realise how silly yet entrenched that idea is. 

We also had high school kids in our work groups who could confirm or deny the effectiveness of government programmes to improve technology education, and of course contribute the best ideas that nobody else thought of. Some kids still don’t have a computer at home so partnerships with companies like Google and Microsoft to lease hardware were a big winner. One of the girls I spoke with had a net book her family paid about $3 a week for and she said it made a big difference to her skills and enthusiasm for computing and those of her siblings and parents. WIN

Primary kids coming to after school programmes at the MindLab to learn technology were still 80% boys. Parents dropped the boys off to play robots and took the girls shopping- it still wasn’t really thought that little five year old girls could be interested in building robots. This thinking was confirmed by one of the woman at my table who shared her story about her high school daughter’s careers day. The parent with the most interest worked at the Estee Lauder counter at a department store and the girls thought that would be a great job because you get free makeup samples. And yes, this was one of those horrible-amounts-of-money-per-semester private schools in Auckland. FAIL

Quality of teaching and curriculum was a big topic and not something I know a lot about but you could see clear links between stand out schools that were producing strong results in STEM subjects and the quality of the teachers, through to individual teachers who made learning more engaging and fun for the kids. 

There was a bit of traditional university bashing which I wasn’t too keen on (mainly because universities are an area that women do really well in so why mess with something that works and is a strong on-ramp for women in the workforce?) although I do agree that subject choice and mix of skills needs to change. After hanging out with the primary and secondary school kids I can see that those choices have to start younger than tertiary level. It’s a bit chicken and egg (my mum is a hairdresser and my Dad a blue collar electrician-both left school at age 14) so visibility and role models for me to make tertiary choices mainly came outside the home and much later on. It’s not hard to see how TV shows and familiar environments like retail paint pictures of a future kids can see and understand. How do we paint them new pictures that aren’t from their 1970s parent’s world?

I think it's why I’m so positive about technologies like social media and web video communities for kids because it introduces them to environments outside their family life. Although there are a few weirdos out there and you have to be careful about that, allowing kids to participate in online communities might let them find avenues that they are really interested in and help them to think a bit bigger- the girl who 3D printed makeup at Harvard for instance. 

Does your daughter like iPads? Great, she's into computers, take her to a computer club and you can go shopping on the way home. Does she like colouring? Let her digital paint and paper paint so she can run some film units at Weta. Then we ate some brownies and drank some coffee and moved around the yellow tables so we could meet all the people who were there, which was really great. And then the little kids who were there with their school group got into a line and held hands and did a walking bus back to their school and we clapped and went “awwwww cuuute” and it just proved that girls can be little girls and still make awesome robots given a bit of encouragement and adults who can help equip and connect the dots for them. 

How to teach girls how to code in the real world

Girls should be really good at coding.I’m quite convinced of this, even though I’m not really good at it myself and I just want to share a little something from my experience in the hope that it will help the teaching and learning part. 

I went and did a course with some database stuff about 12 years ago -MS SQLServer and ASP was my starting point-and I really struggled. The database design stuff was fine and I got how that worked. Even some of the forms we made and basic javascript form validation and HTML, that was OK. But all this declaring variables and ‘if, then’ functions business made absolutely no sense to me at all. 

Parking me at a computer with one of those big red phone books with the black and white cover and the red letters was not the way to teach me and it wasn’t until I had a go at building something myself, that I figured out how to connect a database and make a cart that worked and did some basic things.

And before you say that I’m kinetic, or not a classroom learner, that’s not true because I’ve been tested for all that. According to my friend’s PhD research, I’m exactly 50/50 audio/visual which is bang on for most classical classroom and lecture style learning. So the person standing up the front with Powerpoint preso in a lecture or a conference is perfect for me. 

What I needed was real world context. Yes, more audio and visual probably would have helped but I think we have to be careful about thinking that girls need floaty pretty pictures and boys can handle linear, gritty mechanical things. Context is the ‘why’ and this is the main thing I was missing.  I had no context and no idea of what I was trying to make, or even really do.  Context is really important to how I learn. If I get the business case up front, then I can move back and bolt something together (see what I did there). Going the other way and declaring things and passing things around in abstract form was a complete riddle to me. 

It’s the same reason (and a big of odd self diagnosis here) that I was pretty good at algebra and crap at calculus. Algebra is often taught in word problems and solve for x. If three apples and two oranges cost $4 sort of thing- I can picture the apples and the oranges and get why you would want to figure that out. Going straight to 3x and 2y and then getting to the end of the course and saying ‘so you can work out how many apples and oranges you can buy at the supermarket’ doesn’t work so well for me. 

I’ll give you another example. I was watching two young girls -about 8 and 10 at a guess, playing in a hotel reception. They were playing check-ins with one playing the guest and the other one writing down all the details on a real, paper hotel check-in form.  I looked at the form afterwards and was surprised how well she had done at capturing all the correct information. She had put in variables for car parking, the three dogs that were also coming to dinner and their meal requirements (!) and all the customer information like name, address and email. It was clear that the girls had a good understanding of the business case for capturing customer hotel information on a form. 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to then take the paper form and say:

‘how do we make it so when Mrs.Dinglebatt comes next time with her three dogs, she doesn’t have to fill the form in again?’

‘Mrs. Dinglebatt left her mobile phone charger in the room. How do we get her contact information so we can email and tell her we have it?’

’when Mrs. Dinglebatt’s dogs order room service- how do we make sure it gets charged to the bill so she can pay at the end?’

I think the girls would have got it, especially if they could see the process end to end with the reception person calling up information on a computer. Minecraft and other games are pretty great too, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid to use real-world problems and everyday situations to teach girls how to code in context because I think that could really help the little girls playing hotels to make the next AirBNB or Paypal.