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We need more girls. Over the past 15 years, the global community has invested a lot of effort in engaging and encouraging females to actively participate in science-related industries, however, the current numbers are not promising.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11th February the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The objective of this day is to celebrate females who are leading innovation, at the same time, to create awareness for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in science.

What else can we do? How can Malaysian parents find more inspiration for their daughters?

Photo credit: Linda Liukas Instagram

Parents will be thrilled to know that there is an organisation like Rail Girls KL to introduce women and girls to the world of coding. Inspired by the work of Linda Liukas, one of the founders of Rail Girls, the Kuala Lumpur chapter is part of a global network that teaches women and girls programming.

An inspiring figure, Liukas also authored Hello Ruby, a whimsical children’s book about the world of computers. She founded Rail Girls in Finland with Karri Saarinen in 2010. They aim to make technology and computer programming more accessible and approachable to girls. With a presence in more than 300 cities, the movement is fast gaining momentum.

Rails Girls KL was founded by Malaysians Sher Minn and Wunmin Wong back in 2017. Both now reside overseas and the current organising committee consists of Lindy Lim and Michelle Ler.

Lim is a recent A-Levels graduate who is continously seeking to improve her programming skills. Ler is currently pursuing a computer science degree. They organise free workshops that cover an introduction to technology, basic programming, sketching and prototyping. Considering they are actually volunteers with Rail Girls, their efforts are incredibly inspiring! These workshops are conducted with support from sponsors and experts from the industry who act as mentors to participants.

Lindy Lim (in blue) mentoring the girls in a 2018 workshop. Photo credit: Rails Girls KL Facebook.

Some of the past programmes they have conducted include collaborations with Women Who Code in 2017 and 2018 for the Hour of Code. The workshop was aimed at youth from ages seven to 17. Rails Girls KL also organised a workshop called Ruby on Rails in 2018 which attracted over 140 applicants! Unfortunately, due to limited space, they had to limit the number of participants to 60. The youngest was 16 years of age and the oldest being in her 50s!

2019 Coding events by Rail Girls KL – Come one, come all!

  1. March/April: Rails Girls will be partnering with mapping tech company HERE Technologies to conduct a workshop on JavaScript which will be open to all ages.
  2. June: School holidays workshop targeted at teenagers aged 13 to 17.
  3. December: Hour of Code workshop in collaboration with Women Who Code and Google developers. This workshop will be targeted at younger audiences.

Details of the events above are unconfirmed. Do follow Rails Girls KL on Facebook for further information.

Why coding?

As science and technology continue to permeate every aspect of our lives, being digitally literate is becoming more of a basic necessity.  In the simplest definition, coding is about developing a series of commands for the computer to follow. Imagine having that skill at your fingertips, the possibilities are endless!

Even if your child may not end up with a tech-related career, learning to code offers a lot of other advantages:

  1. It improves critical thinking and problem solving – When a child codes, they break down a complex problem into smaller, more manageable parts. This encourages logical and computational thinking.  According to Dr. Dan Crow, Chief Technology Officer of Songkick, computational thinking “will help you understand and master technology of all sorts and solve problems in almost any discipline.”
  2. It encourages creativity – By giving simple commands to the computer, kids are encouraged to experiment with various outcomes. This will inspire the child to be more curious, question assumptions and hopefully gain more confidence to explore their creativity.
  3. It develops resilience –  Plenty of things can go wrong when you code. But what better way to build perseverance than working through the challenges faced. Coding teaches kids to be resilient in dealing with failures and to see that it is not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it can be an opportunity to learn and simply bounce back.

If your child is too young to attend coding classes or workshops, you can always nurture the interest and start with STEM toys. Provide the opportunity for your daughters (and sons) to learn about technology and the way computers work. Hopefully, this will give them an advantage later on in life.

 

“Mummy, I want to do a toy review.”

“Ok. Go ahead.”

“But I need the camera, mummy.”

As my wife and I laughed, it occurred to us that this was the first time our son ever asked to do one. We just bought him a toy robot which he really liked and wanted to talk about.

For those in the dark (though I highly doubt it), there is a famous YouTube channel of a boy reviewing his toys with the help of his parents and sister. I can’t elaborate much as I’m not exactly his target audience but my son certainly is and he is a huge fan. I can safely say the same for millions of other kids around the world.

This new-found confidence my 5-year-old son exuded had me thinking of all the articles and videos stressing how detrimental gadgets can be for children.

But, just how detrimental can they be?

Now, this might be controversial, so I’ll whisper it – they might not be all that bad.

There are enough information out there to support the argument against it. Allow me to play devil’s advocate.

Computers as a learning aid

A research paper that studies the effect of computers on children as an audio-visual aid state that computers allow them to use a vast mine of information. A child’s learning rate differs from one to the other. It’s one of the many things that makes each of us unique. Having seen my son grow up during these past five years, I can see that he absorbs sounds and images at a rapid rate and makes them part of his daily lexicon. This gave him an edge when he started pre-school. I have also seen other children count, identify colours and shapes, and name body parts at the tender age of three, thanks to catchy rhymes and songs.

The same research paper also mentioned that computers as a learning aid help do away with people’s racial, ethnic and colour features. They also help develop communication without prejudices and build a common global culture. Personally, I can vouch for this as I cannot recall a single moment where my son asked why another person is of a different skin colour, or talks in a different language. Sure, he’ll have his opinion later in life but at this stage, I’m happy with the fact that he’s oblivious to race, colour or creed. With all that is happening in the world today, a tiny bit of ignorance is certainly bliss.

On the subject of language, one in particular is making headway among young children today. Although there are variants of it, it is more commonly known as ‘coding’. Essentially, they are lines of programming codes that are used to create applications and websites. They are now so widely used and simplified, that even nine year olds are capable of creating useful mobile applications. This breeds a new level of creativity and innovation, and has a large community of developers that interacts frequently.

Practicalities and Opportunities

The sheer number of devices in this world makes it almost impossible to avoid using one. In fact, a Statista survey made in March 2016 found that 21% of Malaysian respondents made use of two connected devices on a daily basis. That amounts to one in every five of the population. So, why not make the best out of a situation? If parents are not keen on giving their children access to the Internet too early but want to see how they react to these devices, fret no further. There are other offline alternatives out there that use cartridges containing various learning materials.

There is also the opportunity to teach manners and discipline with children when using these devices. A more fun way to limit the usage is by using a timetable where you can chuck in other tasks and chores. Also, promises have always been a weapon for parents. A trip to Legoland for good marks at school. An ice cream cone for cleaning a room. A new football for good behaviour. An hour of Minecraft on the tablet for completing their homework. It’s the same difference.

However, we simply cannot ignore the negatives – some are undeniably justified. Long-period usage of electronic devices can affect a child’s eyesight, especially if they view them too close for comfort or use them in the dark. Addiction can also be a problem. Even adults can be attached to devices with all the content the Internet provides us. So, one can only imagine what it can do to an innocent child. More worryingly, children may access unwanted and vulgar content. Unfortunately, there are people out there who think it is ‘funny’ to make videos of cartoon characters doing filthy acts to one another, knowing very well that children are bound to click on any links that have the names of their favourite superheroes. Those are just a few but harmful examples of using electronic devices unsupervised.

Technology and Parenting

That last word – unsupervised – is paramount to the arguments for and against. Under proper supervision and censorship, electronic devices mixed with a sprinkle of magic that is the Internet can be the ultimate teaching tool for our little ones. We can’t deny the fact that these devices are going nowhere and will forever be integrated in our daily lives.

That’s where our parenting skills come into play. It goes without saying that it will be us who will mould our children into the adults they become. One can even say that learning to balance or limit access to these devices is unprecedented, as parents of yesteryear did not have to deal with what we face today. However, that is no excuse. Parenting is something you learn as you go. As this article mentioned early on, each child is different. That includes how they deal with instructions. So, we can read all the do’s and dont’s when it comes to finding the perfect balance but ultimately, we, the parents will need to make the decision.

I have no doubt in my mind that we will make the right one.

By Kimi Jamalus

Mohd Hakimi Jauhari Jamalus juggles the responsibilities of being an IT consultant for a UK-based online media company with being a father to a son and daughter every day. He always find new things to learn when it comes to parenthood and is enjoying every second of it.