Boys Like to Break Things

Boys Like to Break Things.txt

by Richard White

2014-09-10

It’s no secret that Technology Education has something of a gender problem. For reasons that are still unknown (at least to me), I have far fewer female students in my Computer Science courses than in my Physics classes, where the ratio is close to 50-50. I encourage young women to join my classes, and even had the honor of advising an all-girl group of “Technovators” in an app-design competition the year before.

It’s a curious thing, and although I’d like to find a way to improve the girl:boy ratio, it’s not entirely clear what I should do to do so.

An interesting thing happened in the AP Computer Science class the other day however, and it broke down along gender lines. We’d taken a few moments earlier in the period to examine an old PC running Linux that I’d placed at the front of the room. I’d taken one side of the tower off, and we were looking at the motherboard, graphics card, disk drive, CPU, etc.

And a bit later in the class we were going over shell commands that students might find useful, and after introducing the “remove” command (rm), I mentioned the dangers of inadvertently typing sudo rm -rf /, a command which will recursively remove every file on the computer… usually not something that one intends to do.

it’s an interesting concept, and the thrill of a dangerous command like that holds some inherent appeal, perhaps, to geeks. And then one of the boys raised his hand and asked, “How long will it take before the rm command eventually removes some critical file that is necessary to the ongoing operation of the computer?”

It was an interesting question and one that I hadn’t given much thought to up to this point. The rm command is working on the hard drive, while the operating system mostly resides in RAM, but there are swap operations in which the OS interacts with the hard drive, so… this was a great thing to ponder. At what point does the snake eating its own tail become unable to continue?

You know where this is going. “That’s a great question, Cyril. Let’s find out.” So I had one of the students type the requisite command on the computer that, moments ago, we’d used to demonstrate hardware. They hit the Enter key and took great delight in the list of files scrolling by on the screen, a live-action view of what was being deleted as the rm command slowly destroyed the OS.

This singular opportunity was of such interest that the students crowded around the machine to watch the spectacle, and one young man recorded the event on his phone…

Here’s the other part that you can almost certainly guess. Of the four young women in the class, not a single one came up to the front to watch the event up close. Were they intimidated by the gathered crowd? Was the destruction just less interesting to them? Were they thinking about heading off to their next class? Are boys just more interested than girls in testing things, even (especially!) to the point of breaking them?

I don’t have the answer, but I think about these things. We all need to be thinking about these things, and encouraging women who express interest to explore the idea of learning more technology.

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