This past week I had the absolute honour and privilege of chatting with students across the States and Canada about coding and computer engineering for Hour of Code.
The Hour of Code is a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. The Hour of Code Week also features lots of other kinds of events beyond the basic tutorials.
I spoke with a bunch of third graders in Chicago and a girls Computer Science club via Skype, held a one-to-many hour of “Ask anything about code” for teachers, educators and others curious about code, teaching code and learning to code and an in-person presentation in a high school to try and get 14 year old girls into Computer Science courses in grade 10.
Along the way, I got detained by the principal’s office (twice), accidentally opened conversations on feminism and equality with 8 year olds and shamelessly used images of my platonic friends as “hot computer engineers” in an in-person presentation.
I also had the opportunity to see other devs at work trying to make this work. We’re in this together. It’s tough. We’re on the same team. Also, we have to step up our game.
Following are a few general recommendations for how to go about building a presentation when you’ve been invited into a school.
- No one actually cares about your job
This includes your education, major achievements in life, current job description, duties and responsibilities and your job title.
Make it way more concrete.
I’m currently the “Lead Developer at the Centre for Social Innovation”
For 8 year olds, I translated this to: “You know how the Earth is really important and some people want to save whales? To save whales, they need money and to get money from people, they need a computer form. I build computer forms so people can save whales.”
For 14 year olds, I translated this to: “I’m a computer programmer and I don’t do math.”
You don’t get brownie points in a high school auditorium speaking to a bunch of teachers not in your field for showing off your accolades, pin feathers, whatever. You’re here for one reason: the audience. That audience is a bunch of students you’re trying to get to code, by any means necessary. Always keep that in mind.
2. No one actually cares about code
Show videos of 3D printers instead.
Alternatively, show sketches of prototypes, fashion design, sewing, playing with phones, lights or other new technologies.
Almost anything you do with code, live, static or otherwise, will turn your audience off because it will be wholly and completely meaningless.
Cool videos of concrete things we know about in our world are much cooler since we know about those things and know when they’re doing something awesome.
3. No one beyond 8 year olds actually cares about saving the world.
Orcas are really cool because they are cool, not because “it is vitally important that girls and women code so that the orcas can be saved by the FEPA EEPA ETCA”.
While we want to make “code stuff” relatable, we need to remember to make it actually relatable to their current lives. The typical rally call I heard this week was, “Want to work in transportation? In agriculture? In processing? Then you need to code.”
Actually, I don’t think any of these kids want to work in any of those fields, and even if they did, it’s not relatable to their current life.
I threw in this one: “I started programming by accident, when I wanted to dress my Neopets up on the website and earn Neopoints money.” I showed them a naked Aisha and a faerie Aisha and they giggled a lot.
At the end of the talk, I said, “So go check out Treehouse, or dress up your Neopet, or add glitter to your name. Just get on a computer and do the thing. In the next couple days, talk to Mr. So-and-so about the all-girls CS course being offered next year so you can really learn how to do this stuff.”
I’m most certainly out of touch on my pop culture, but creating a blog, a photo editor site or a pretty monster is much more relatable and accessible than some long-off desire to work in agriculture.
Agriculture? Seriously? Who wants to work in agriculture? It’s a perfectly respectable industry. Also: I’ve never heard a 14 year old express deep yearning to go into agriculture via computer engineering.
4. No one actually cares how important grown-ups think it is that they go into Computer Engineering.
Things they do care about:
- the boys knocking on the door hooting like coyotes
- dance practice
- their late math homework
- when samosas will be served
- where their mittens went
- getting a Google toque
- eating cake
- not eating cake because that snarky girl across from them called them fat last week in the cafeteria
So stop telling them it’s important for girls or youth or anyone to go into Computer Engineering. Wah wah wah merh merh merh merh. Hear that? That’s Charlie Brown’s teacher, and that’s you, preaching responsibility and duty to persons thinking about the bullet points above.
Instead, talk about the reasons you love your job (not what your job is, why you love it) and how much cooler than your poor friends eating ramen you are.
5. Do you want to have sex with your powerpoint?
Then please throw it out. I’m bored.
This week I was trapped in a room with a Powerpoint with clip art in it. There were clips about agriculture. Please just don’t.
Tips & Ticks Summary
- Make your job concrete, relatable and a useful recruitment tool.
Stop talking when you’ve done that.
This isn’t about you. It’s about your audience.
- Show videos of cool stuff.
See: 3D printers, lights, fashion, drones, bananas that are pianos, etc.
- Make reasons to code immediate and relatable.
What can a student go home and do today?
What could they sit in a classroom and start right now on their own devices?
These immediate and relatable projects will have the most impact.
- Use the reasons you love your job to create an aspirational and inspirational thing to strive for.
People remember cool things that stir their soul and excite them. That’s why TED talks exploded. They rarely remember boring lectures about duty and responsibility. That’s why we don’t watch Congress on free public TV.
- Use any tool but Powerpoint.
Useful examples: Keynote, Haiku Deck, reveal.js