School kids turning away from computing subjects

Government, industry must act to attract more students into IT

Both young men and women are walking away from secondary school studies that could lead to careers in IT, with young women turning away faster than their male counterparts, according to the Dean of Charles Sturt University's Faculty of Education.

Professor Toni Downes was a senior member of a research team that sought to gauge the interests in particular high school subjects and potential careers of 1334 male and female Year 10 students across NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

Only 13 percent, or 94 out of 739 girls, indicated they would study IT related subjects in their senior years. Between 2002 and 2007, both boys and girls shied away from secondary school computing and IT subjects across the three states. While girls were less represented than boys, they are walking away in greater numbers.

Downes believes that the changes to the NSW HSC in 2001, when the focus of Year 12 computing subjects shifted from a combination of computer literacy and foundational studies to greater emphasis on computing and IT as an academic discipline, have contributed to the decline in enrolments across NSW and especially among females.

"This has also resulted in a greater gender imbalance in the students taking senior computing, with a decreasing proportion of female students taking Year 12 computing and IT subjects," Prof Downes said.

"The reasons are complex, but the reasons that girls give are often the same reasons that disinterested boys give. Sometimes they are making their judgments on careers based on stereotypes, sometimes the girls are making their decisions based on self-limiting identities like 'it's not cool for me to be a nerd' because they think the career is nerdy."

Other factors influencing deterrence from a career in IT is a perception that it isn't a very social oriented industry, or the perception that while a young person might not know what career path they wish to follow, they already know how to use a computer and therefore dismiss it as a potential area of study.

"They are showing a confusion about being able to drive the car and being able to build or fix the car. They are confusing knowing how to use a computer with a deep understanding of the underlying scientific, mathematical or conceptual framework. The boys that are walking away are making the same types of mistakes - making judgments on the stereotypical image of the career or what they imagine they would be studying," Prof Downes said.

Rightly or wrongly, Downes said there is no introductory foundation on computational thinking, data and data types or algorithmic thinking in student's early years, leading them to imagining what studying computing and IT is all about from their experiences using computers at home or at school.

Boys generally engage in activities such as computer gaming at a higher rate than girls, and their capacity as computer hobbyists is one factor influencing their higher rate of career uptake in the IT industry.

"As hobbyists they actually become insiders, they begin to develop an intuitive understanding of how things work. There are some girls in that group but not a lot, and being an insider through your hobbies makes you want to learn more about how things work."

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