A common theme for all of the jurisdictions examined here has been the need to attract young people to computing and coding, with female students a particular focus. In some cases, there has been a deliberate attempt to link schools’ endeavours to informal and extra-curricular work (see, for example, in Wales). The Northern Ireland Assembly also noted the potential usefulness of such activities.
Several authors ( for example) reflect on the need to position computing as one of the sciences, standing as part of the STEM community. This is an apt comparison to make, as the teaching and learning challenges in school that have faced the STEM community for several decades are also reflected in engagement and participation in computing and related activities.
STEM enrichment and engagement interventions are many and various. In 2004, the National Audit Office estimated that there were 470 different activities with an associated expenditure of £35m. These typically aspire to positively interest children and young people in STEM but are all too often not set up to be evaluated or their impact understood. This really limits our ability to understand what works (and, indeed, what does not work).
The number and range of informal and extra-curricular activities concerning computing and coding is extensive and there are some high-level interests in them, and there is a growing interest in getting below the surface of these and appraising their effectiveness.
For example, Code Club commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to study their impact, finding that it worked well in developing coding skills but had no discernible impact on computational thinking.
CoderDojo Scotland have looked at ways of encouraging female students to participate in one of their 23 Scottish clubs and established, almost counter-intuitively that female-only clubs did not help to increase participation whereas using the right language (amongst other things) to describe the clubs did.
Digital Schoolhouse work closely with schools and have presented a very honest appraisal of where they are able to make a difference and the barriers they might face when trying to blend their offer with what happens in schools. Technocamps works with schools across Wales in both English and Welsh, engaging with learners of all ages to change perceptions of computer science, as well as supporting the professional development of teachers.
There are very few of the many, many, activities and groups that are setting out to increase diversity in the computing and digital communities that have clearly identifiable objectives that can help to understand whether or not they are having they effect they wish.
They should be encouraged to do so, as they may be genuinely making a difference and others may learn from this. The National Centre for Computing Education has launched a series of research trials, one of which is focused on non-formal learning. Each four-year trial is aimed at generating evidence to help improving the gender balance in computing.
The importance of role-modelling, mentoring, and signalling has been identified time and again as a factor in encouraging under-represented groups to participate in STEM activities and study. Tackling these issues is not something that often results in an instant result, so policy and practical work may require long-term engagement and good alignment between the aims of schools and the informal sector.