Alternative viral headlines include: “87 ways your school outreach programme sucks”, “17 reasons you probably don’t miss school”, or “this teacher didn’t quite get the point, what she said will amaze you! I was on my feet!”

TL;DR – WHAT’S WRONG WITH PROGRAMMING?!

I’ve decided to take a diversion from my usual “sporadic conference summary” blog and written something that is hopefully more engaging today. As some of you may know, I’m currently mentoring an Extreme Blue team at work, helping them create an online platform that can be used by school outreach/mentoring schemes. It’s specifically aimed at encouraging students into STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths) subjects at school and beyond (if you’re interested in the Extreme Blue scheme and this year’s projects, check out their blog here).

As part of my mentoring responsibilities I acted as taxi driver for two interns in my team (which turned out to be a bit too realistic when they both sat in the back seat of my car and left me alone in the front to complain about road works) as we went to interview some students in a local school.

Us as we pull up to the school

During the interviews I was sitting on an adjacent table in the library half listening to the conversation between the interns and the school students, half meddling with some code on my laptop. One of the questions asked was something along the lines of “what careers in technology do you know about?”, and this question is what’s kicked off today’s blog post.

Now the students being interviewed are about 14 years old, and pretty technically literate judging by the number of different applications they listed off when asked what tech they use. Their response to “what careers in tech do you know about?”:

“coding and being a teacher in coding”.

Intriguing. The supervising teacher sitting next to me picks up on this answer and starts to wonder if the school can do anything more to broaden their horizons beyond “just coding” as a career path in technology. She’s worried the children are being put off careers in tech by the thought that all they would be able to do is code.

Now I’ve been involved with these types of school outreach and mentoring schemes at work for the last few years and have done similar schemes at university. Quite often when we’re discussing events to get kids into STEM careers, it’s usually suggested that we have to show the students other career paths, as so many of them don’t want to spend their time programming: “you don’t just have to be a programmer you know, you can be a designer, a project manager” etc.

These are valid points to be made – not everyone likes programming, but all of this comes back to the same question

“what’s wrong with being a programmer”?

Back in the school, I try to take this up with the teacher – yes we should expose students to all the different career paths, but it shouldn’t be done based on the assumption that no one wants to do the core part of that industry, namely programming or developing tech in any sense. This starts with the assumption that there’s something inherently bad about it (I mean I was right there with my laptop and sublime text open, programming in front of her before this conversation started!).

Even more worrying was the teacher’s response:  “but programming is too close to maths or science which is why the students don’t want to the do it”.

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH MATHS OR SCIENCE!?

As far as I could tell, to the teacher (and possibly the whole school), the enjoyment of maths, science and programming is constrained to the weird elite of top set nerds, but no one else could possibly like it. There’s an idea that some people are “mathsy” people, that this is determined at secondary school age, and no one else could possibly be interested other than those types of people.

Liz Lemon gets it

Back at my desk I tell this anecdote to a team member to see how he feels about it. Thankfully, he joins in with me yelling “WHATS WRONG WTH PROGRAMMING?!” and two minutes later “WHAT’S WRONG WITH MATHS?!”. The question is, how do you get people who aren’t already interested in the stuff to try it out.

My real concern was that even the teachers are selling maths and science to be something undesirable, that only a special type of person would be interested in. Inevitably the kids pick up on this, and so how on earth are their students supposed to be engaged in it?

As someone that tries to run a scheme encouraging students to be interested in STEM, how can we overcome that stereotype, that they’re hearing absolutely everywhere?

Fuck knows. I’ll get back to you in a few weeks.

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