A Troubling Trend

Yesterday I gave 4 lessons1 to 4 different year groups at my local secondary school. The lessons were on IT in general, and covered Ariane 501. Ariane 501 is a great case study for how a trivial oversight in software can cause a catastrophic failure, but it’s also quite a complex subject. You really need an appreciation of binary and integer overflows, and a familiarity with programming, especially Ada, helps. I usually do the talk for university students and above.

Given I had absolutely no expectation of secondary school kids knowing about integer overflows and Ada, or indeed any programming beyond Scratch and maybe Python, I took it back to basics and disguised learning about binary and bytes as ‘fun’ by wrapping it in rockets going boom. It seemed to work well.

I did, however, notice a troubling trend.

The year 72 group were hugely engaged, with the whole group (boys and girls) actively answering and asking questions. One girl even managed to work out what went wrong with Ariane 501 five minutes into that part of the talk. I was seriously impressed.

As you go up through the year groups the engagement reduced. This was expected; as the kids get older they get more self conscious – and this doesn’t stop at childhood, we adults are just as guilty. What wasn’t expected was the difference in engagement between the girls and the boys.

With year 7 the split was almost equal, 50/50 girls and boys answering, and asking the questions. By year 103 I’d guess only 10% of the hands were girls. And yet they knew the answers. One girl, who had been separated from the group for being disruptive at the beginning of the class, was whispering the answers to herself, and was getting them all right.

It saddens me to think that in 4 years a 7 year old, who practically left me speechless with her powers of observation and deduction will, for some unfathomable reason, likely also be whispering the answers before giving up on tech for good.


1 I’ve been giving a lot of talks of late which is part of the reason I’ve not been blogging so much. My usual blogging time has been taken over by me trying to get all my prep done in time.

2 Aged 11-12

3 Aged 14-15