Perhaps gender stereotyping does lead to some interesting truths about projects and learning?

I have been working with several schools in order to help teachers understand how the Scratch programming language can be used as a way for students to express themselves and their learning. Within a grade six class,  I noticed an interesting dynamic with one of the table groups as they were working. The table group had three groups.  One pair of boys and two pairs of girls.

First, the assignment.  The groups were to create a working simulation of the Earth/Moon system.  I gave them a Design Kit that contained a Sun, and Earth and a Moon to play with.  There were seven main tasks that the simulation needed to have:

  • The Earth needs to spin all the way around once a day.
  • The Earth needs to have night and day.
  • There needs to be a sprite that shows a picture of the Moon phases, as we see them from Earth,  for all 28 days of the Lunar Cycle.
  • There needs to be label somewhere on the screen showing the name of the phase of the Moon in your simulation.
  • The Moon orbits around the Earth and takes 28 days in your simulation.
  • There is a teeny arrow of the Moon, showing the side of the moon that ALWAYS faces the Earth.  The arrow needs to always be pointing at the Earth in your simulation.
  • The Moon needs to have night and day.

The starting Design Kit for the Lunar Project – I did actually talk to the students about the “scale” of the sun and the distance the Moon is from the Earth.  Good activity for ratios really.

For my SDK I just arbitrarily put the Sun on the left hand side of the screen.

The table group had a set of boys who were partnered up and two pairs of girls.  When the boys had figured out how to animate the moon to show the phases of the Moon from Earth, they were happy to show the girls that they did it, but being grade six boys, were not willing to share their code. “Figure it out yourself!”  After a fair amount of complaining, the two groups of girls set about figuring out what the boys did to make the timing right.  The two groups of girls collaborated and figured it.  It was not a particularly hard part of the challenge, and one the girls worked out the problem it only took them a few minutes.

The next task the boys worked on was getting the Moon to orbit the Earth and have it match up to the phase names.  They immediately headed into their science notes and found a diagram that would help, but it didn’t take them very long to realize that in the diagram the sun was on the right. Cursing my helpful programming kit (where the Sun is on the other side of the simulation) they set about the task of reversing the image, so they could make their moon travel the correct direction and have the correct phases named.  When mentally flipping the image they were making errors. So complaining mightily and reached for paper, so they could redraw their diagram and line it up correctly.

During this whole process, the girls whispered to themselves, rolled their eyes. One girl even suggested that they help the boys, an idea quickly turned down by the other three.  After all, there had been no help forthcoming when they had asked the two boys.

It was a wee bit of a struggle for the lads, but after 5 minutes of checking and double checking the boys made a loud “whoop” (the traditional celebration for meeting a particularly good challenge) and started bragging to the girls about how far ahead they were.

“But we finished that a long time ago.  It only took us 2 seconds to solve that part of the problem.  You have been working on it forever, really.”

The boys were flabbergasted.  “You redrew the diagram in 2 seconds?  I don’t think so!”

“We didn’t redraw the diagram silly.”

And then the girls showed their elegant solution*.

The girls had, in fact, solved the problem in two seconds.   They didn’t need to redraw anything. They moved the Sun to the right side of the screen. Then their screen and the diagram matched.

The boys made a lot of grumbles about how their solution was more in the spirit of the whole thing. The girls laughed and shook their head. And I just smiled and wrote my observations.

(I should note that in the entire class these girls were the only ones to use this solution).

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*Elegant Solution: “An elegant solution, often referred to in relation to problems in disciplines such as mathematics, engineering, and programming, is one in which the maximum desired effect is achieved with the smallest, or simplest effort.” From techtarget.com

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In my own math, science  and technology classes I often talk about finding the “elegant solution” which is a great way to extend thinking about problem solving and reinforcing that there is always more than one way of solving the problem.  This is not my own original idea, I found it in an article many years ago about math education in Japan.  If anyone knows the article or source where this idea came from, I would appreciate a message in the comments so I can give them credit!

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