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Want More Girls in Computer Science? Tone Down the "Geek"

While nerd pride may be a helpful strategy to build self-esteem among some youth, a new study from the Journal of Educational Psychology demonstrates that it may negatively impact interest in computer science among the majority of young women.

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Want More Girls in Computer Science? Tone Down the "Geek"

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Thanks to the rise of Silicon Valley and the tech boom, there is an expanding subculture of science nerds who are openly proud of their collective “geek” identity. Geek Pride Day is celebrated on May 25 th , and Star Wars, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Bill Gates are often embraced as cultural icons. Embracing nerd culture means it is absolutely OK to be shy, bookish, and unconcerned with fashion or mainstream trends. Nerd pride may have positive effects on teens that fit this identity and are interested in STEM, particularly for its ability to support confidence in the face of adolescent peer pressure.

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Is “nerd culture” inviting for all students, especially young women?

But, while nerd pride may be a helpful strategy to build self-esteem among some youth, a new study from the Journal of Educational Psychology demonstrates that it may negatively impact interest in computer science among the majority of young women. Stakeholders around the country are interested in increasing the percentage of women in tech , which was reported at 26% in 2014. The study shows that the way computer science is presented and marketed to girls may change their interest in the field.

University of Washington co-authors Sapna Cheryan and Andrew Meltzoff surveyed high school students regarding their interest in enrolling and belonging in a computer science class, and how much their personal style fit into the stereotype of the field and classroom environment. Here’s Molly McElroy, writing for UW Today :

Girls (68 percent) were more likely than boys (48 percent) to prefer the non-stereotypical classroom. And girls were almost three times more likely to say they would be interested in enrolling in a computer science course if the classroom looked like the non-stereotypical one.

The study’s results point out a word of caution for teachers, administrators, curriculum developers, and informal educators creating science courses—embracing one’s “inner nerd” is not a universal prescription for every student’s journey into a STEM profession. Peer pressure and stereotypes hold many young women back from developing a sense of belonging within the current cultural space.

The good news is that this problem can be fixed. Broadening the definition of a computer scientist and what a classroom looks like may have a positive effect on gender equality in computer science, and potentially other science fields as well. For example, consider:

  • How is the classroom designed and decorated?
  • How is the course marketed to students?
  • Who teaches the course, and do they represent a gender or racially diverse student population?
  • What projects are assigned within the course and do they represent wide-ranging interests?
  • Do you bring in guest speakers that are diverse representatives of science professions?

Looking to non-profit groups like Black Girls Who Code and Girls in Tech who are actively working to expand the stereotype in computer science by empowering women and women of color in digital spaces may also help planning within your own school and classroom.