Sarah Moran, CEO of the Girl Geek Academy, explains how teaching algorithmic systems and design thinking can engage a whole class in technology; and how today’s hackers, hustlers and hipsters are using skills that extend far beyond coding.
I started coding in 1990 when I was five years old. No, I wasn’t some super genius. I had a very thoughtful teacher, Mr Cam, who secured a classroom full of Australian-made Microbee computers. As he learned how to use them, he encouraged us to learn alongside him.
Picture a classroom full of primary school kids swapping code across computers, playing each other’s games with pride and laughing when the code wouldn’t do what we thought we’d told it to. Learning technology was a very collaborative activity and this social butterfly fell in love with building the internet.
Today, many teachers inspire the next generation to fall in love with the T in STEM. It might have taken nearly 20 years, but almost every school classroom across Australia now looks and feels like mine did growing up. But there’s still a long way to go.
When kids illustrate what they want to be when they grow up, they can usually draw a scientist, an engineer and a mathematician.
But what does a technologist look like? Technologists build the future, so unless you’re drawing a crystal ball, that can be hard to visualise. Technology is a relatively new profession, and the other professions have been socialised far more effectively. With more time to make these roles visible in society, they are now richly developed in our stories and culture.
If I want to dress up as a famous technologist do I go as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk? For a start they’re all men who live in San Francisco, so not exactly relatable. The idea of going as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak standing next to the Apple II doesn’t really connect mentally with learning drag-and-drop block coding on your iPad.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at BUILD 2019, “Right now as we speak there are more software developers being hired outside of what is considered the ‘tech’ industry and it’s only going to grow.” So now every traditional career has technologists too.
I run school holiday programs teaching women and young girls together in the one classroom. The first activity is for everyone to close their eyes and imagine what it looks like to build the internet.
On my screen I show a stock image of a ‘hacker’ – a dude in a hoodie sitting alone in the dark. “Put your hand up if this is what you think of when you think of hacking?” Up goes every adult’s hand, met with looks of confusion from young girls.
Because they are too young to consume some of the media that glorifies this kind of hacker, those girls haven’t been hit with the stereotypes.
But a new risk is on the horizon. Technology is moving faster than the curriculum, and coding as we know it is becoming daggy. As a woman who thought she’d found a bargain when she scored her Frozen pyjamas for half price, I can assure you – youth culture moves fast.
If we think teaching young people the same block coding lessons in Scratch and Code Studio will still be cool in 2020, think again. This is already happening in high schools, where kids in Year 7 are being ‘taught’ things they’ve already learned in Year 3. It’s frustrating young people and turning them away from technology altogether.
At Girl Geek Academy we ensure we go beyond coding to explain the broader roles and skills in a technology team: hackers, hustlers and hipsters.
A hacker is a builder or coder and uses algorithmic thinking, a hipster is a designer who makes things look good using design thinking, and a hustler uses systems thinking to make sure people actually use the technology once it’s built. These skills are the core ingredients you need to build tech products, and a good technologist is able to dabble in all three.
We are also using the influence of pop culture to inspire young people to think more broadly about careers in technology. Our Girl Geeks book series for young girls aged 9-12 features four friends who discover their talents as hackers, hustlers and hipsters in their classes at school.
There is a real risk the digital wave currently driving inspiration in young people will age quickly and no longer be considered cool, so we need to think about what’s next in terms of inspiring emerging future technologists.
According to the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, 75 per cent of jobs will require STEM skills by 2026. We need all hands on deck to ensure young people not only learn the basics but commit to technology careers and be supported to study the right things at the right time.