Teaching technology literacy to the next generation

Support Girls Teaching Girls to Code

Only 14.5% of engineers in the job force today are women. Why is that? Is it because women make terrible engineers? No, it isn’t. Women make excellent engineers. And a lot of the earliest computer programmers were women. So then what’s the problem?

Heidi Wang explains that there are three problems stopping girls from going into computer science:

  1. The don’t think that they’ll be good at it.
  2. They don’t think that computer science is interesting.
  3. The have this image of engineers that they don’t think is attractive.

Toys That Teach Computer Programming

Programming isn’t something that has to be done sitting in front of a computer. Your kids can learn the concept of queuing up a series of instructions with programmable toys. Some that don’t require the ability to read. Here is a list of toys that teach programming, arranged by age from youngest to oldest.


Bee-Bot is a great introduction to programming for very young kids who haven’t learned their letters or numbers yet. Bee-Bot is a robotic toy from Terrapin, that runs a variant of the Terrapin Logo language that’s similar to KinderLogo, a simplified version of Logo that includes commands but not parameters.

With traditional Logo programming, most instructions consist of a command, followed by a parameter. For example, FD 100 tells the turtle (or bee, in this case) to move forward 100 units. Or RT 90 tells the turtle to turn right 90 degrees. But the Bee-Bot is for kids who haven’t yet learned letters or numbers. The Bee-Bot has buttons for forward, backward, right and left. Each of those numbers has an assumed parameter. For example, the left and right instructions will always turn the Bee-Bot by 90 degrees. So you can make the Bee-Bot make a complete 360-degree turn with four button presses, rather than a RT instruction with a 360 parameter.

After you press a few command buttons, you press the “Go” button, and the Bee-Bot executes your program. It will beep and blink its eyes when it finishes running your program. There are accessories available for the Bee-Bot, such as a set of cards that represent the command buttons that parents or teachers can use to record a representation of the computer program that kids enter into the Bee-Bot. This teaches the foundations of computer programming visually, before kids can read. And before little girls have been brainwashed into believing that computer programming is only for boys.

Computer Programming Resources for Kids

Most programming tools are not appropriate for teaching programming to beginners, especially kids, because they have too many features. And because they have the wrong features. The standard professional tools have too many details, too many options, and too many moving parts.

A generation ago, all computer users had access to very simple programming environments like BASIC and Logo. You could turn on an Apple II computer without a disk or an operating system and it would boot right into BASIC. Programming was just part of using a computer, and anybody who used a computer dabbled in programming. Now there are many layers between the user and the programming environment, which has caused computer users to split into two different groups: users, and programmers. Now most people who use computers don’t program because they don’t have to. And so programming isn’t as accessible as it used to be. The infamous Why The lucky stiff famously referred to this problem as The Little Coder’s Predicament.

Thankfully, the world of educational programming tools is expanding. Many of the modern tools retain the simplicity and instant gratification of old classics like Logo, while providing new capabilities. There are tools now that kids can use to create games and mobile apps before they can even read, without all of the complications of the standard professional programming products. This is a collection of resources for introducing kids to computer programming with more fun and less hassle.

Social Oppression, Ruby and Codes of Conduct

Hackety Hack is a valuable resource for teaching computer programming to kids. It’s a programming environment and a framework for providing interactive lessons. Steve Klabnik is the hero who took over the project after it was abandoned by its original author, _why.

Lindsey Bieda is a computer scientist and feminist who has become an activist on the issue of why women don’t go into computing.

Steve and Lindsey have joined up to produce Anti-Oppression 101, a presentation on gender discrimination in STEM careers, in the context of the larger issue of social oppression.

In Engine Yard’s latest Cloud Out Loud podcast, Social Oppresion, Ruby and Codes of Conduct, Steve and Lindsey talk about all forms of discrimination in technology education, hiring and the workplace. And they have a surprising and saddening statistic about development conferences that might be news to you.

Teaching Technology Literacy Is Your Problem

Your kids need your help. With something that you might not have thought about. Nobody is going to teach them the skills that they need for dealing with the digital future that they’ll live in, unless you do.

Schools teach things that can be tested. If a concept can’t be expressed as a multiple-choice test question that can be graded by an optical scanner, then that concept is out of the scope of the education system. Schools will teach your kids to read and write, and to solve trivial arithmetic puzzles. But they won’t teach your kids the most crucial skill for negotiating the workplaces of the future: how to decide what problems are worth solving. Your kids will be tested on their ability to memorize multiplication tables and to perform long division, but not when and how to effectively use Wolfram Alpha or Mathematica or even a calculator.

Schools also are not going to teach your kids Internet literacy skills. It’s not easy to include advanced web search skills on a standardized test, so don’t expect schools to cover that. They’re too busy preparing kids to answer riddles that are spoon fed to them so that the school can compete for funding. Don’t expect your kids to learn about why one web site ranks higher than another one in search results. Don’t plan on your kids learning the skills to discern the difference between a peer-reviewed scientific article and a conspiracy theory. Don’t pretend that schools will pass on values for how to behave like an adult on the Internet. But our kids have to learn these things somewhere or else we’ll all suffer the consequences. Maybe if you’re lucky, your kids will get a few lessons on avoiding online sexual predators. Or maybe not. From a school’s point of view, it’s not a big priority.