Help! I need to talk to middle-school girls about careers in high tech

Our local university has an upcoming “career day” kinda thing they’re doing for 6th & 7th grade girls. I’ve been asked to do a 50-minute presentation on what it’s like to be a software engineer.

Now that I’ve agreed to do such a thing, I need to figure out what to do! I have zero skills around talking to kids, I don’t have kids myself, and I don’t recall the last time I talked to a 6th or 7th grade girl.

The guidance they give is “Our hope is that your 50-minute presentation includes your educational journey as well as a hands-on, minds-on activity for the girls to experience.”

So what do I do? What would be a good activity? How do I make it interesting for girls of that age? I have a few weeks to plan this out, and I’d really like it to NOT be a yawn-fest.

Bonus question: my company has generously offered to purchase swag for me to give out if I’d like some. What kind of swag do girls that age like nowadays? We can get just about anything branded - fidget spinners, those phone popsocket things, etc. Is there some great thing that every sixth-grade girl wants?

Bonne Bell LipSmackers? :wink:


There are TONS of resources about girls and STEM. I can’t think of a hotter educational topic right now. Here are some…probably plenty of YouTube clips as well. Will this just be a talking head presentation or will there be computers or other technology for the girls to use?

Popsockets would be a good swag item

Do you know the backgrounds of the girls? If their parents didn’t go to college, you should make sure to include more information about how college works.

I can bring a laptop, and I’m pretty sure there will be some sort of projection thing so I could show slides or a demo or whatever. I am supposed to come up with a hands-on activity, but I’m guessing I can’t count on every student having a computer.

One idea I’m toying with would be to do the entire presentation as an activity, and walk the girls through what it’s like to actually work as a software engineering team. Show them how work is divided into small bits, how each engineer would grab a story off the board and work through the coding, how it would then go to QA for testing, etc. I’d very much have to have a super simple example though, and I’m not sure if I could pull the whole thing off in 50 minutes.

Thanks for the list of resources, I’ll go through them.

I would guess that if this is the case, it wouldn’t be up to me to do it. I’ve been specifically asked to do a presentation on software engineering; given that it’s a full-day event that includes a lot of different speakers and sessions, I’d assume general stuff like this would be handled elsewhere.

These are “unplugged” coding activities that you can do without computers

Here is an object lesson on things to not do.

My company does ‘A World in Motion’ with local schools every year.

It’s engineering (automotive) specific, but the website has some lesson plans and ideas targeted around age groups.

If nothing else you might get a feel for how simple or complex you can make your material.

Hands-on might be a challenge for a software engineer, but I’m sure your up to it!

Good for you for agreeing to do something so generous.

If I had to do this, I’d break them up in groups and work on some codecademy stuff.

I’m sure you’ll come up with something better.

Well, they said they wanted you to talk about your “educational journey”. I am suggesting you poll the girls on their backgrounds a little before you talk about that, because you want to know if they have any vision of what a software engineer would study in college, or even what “study in college” looks like. they will likely be interested in this–especially if you make it sound exciting and challenging in a positive way.

That may be too practical for that audience. Ten and eleven year-olds won’t really get into that. For that age range, it needs to be something fun. They don’t need to know about the day-to-day of being a software engineer. Try to find a way to make them excited about doing programming.

One thing might be is to find a coding website they can do on their phone. I’m not familiar with such websites, but hopefully somebody here will have some ideas. Find a website where they can make some cool visual thing where objects move around, colors change, or whatever. Have a few while/for/if blocks where they control what happens when the objects move around. They can make up whatever cool visual thing they like and they’ll have fun tweaking it for their own preference.

If you only have 50 minutes total for the presentation, your activity can’t be very in-depth. Yes, there are programming resources designed for education, but you’d end up burning through most of your time just getting everyone set up (especially since a lot of them will need approval from a parent or guardian to use the website), and then your final product wouldn’t be much more than a “Hello World”.

I’d recommend a Human Robots activity, to show what it means to think like a programmer. Probably the best way to do it would be with you as the robot, and trying to accomplish some simple task, like making a peanut-butter sandwich, but you can only do things that the “programmers” (the class) tell you to do. So, for instance, if they start by telling you to get out two slices of bread, you would go through the motions of trying to reach into the bag to get out the bread, except that the bag isn’t open yet. So first they have to tell you to open the bread bag.

If you want to make it more hands-on, then you can have the kids pair up, with one kid in each pair being the programmer, and one being the robot. If you do it this way, then you’ll probably want to make the task simpler (like gathering up a number of small objects scattered on the floor), and also set a limited list of commands the robots can follow (example: Move forward, stop, turn left, turn right, down, up, open hand, close hand). Make it clear to the robots that they should only follow those commands, and not to improvise on them, even (or especially) if it’s embarrassing to the programmer (thus, for instance, if the programmer says “Move forward. Down.”, then the robot should continue moving forward while crouched down).

I think Chronos’s idea is great. That gets across the concept that a programmer has to work out exact instructions. Maybe even bring a loaf of bread in a tied bag, a knife, a tub of butter, bologna in a sealed package and lettuce. (No peanut butter!) Get all the class involved in taking turns giving instructions, one line at a time.

Maybe also have one student or the teacher write out each line on a white board as the students give it to you, and then have them make erasures or corrections, to show the trial and error aspect.

In this day and age, talking to kids about software engineering should be (ridiculously) EASY. Every 6th/7th grader has at least seen 1) a smartphone, 2) a computer, 3) a video game. So what they may not know is that software (and thereby software engineers) were “behind” making those things possible. Technology, and in most cases, software is EVERYWHERE around them.

Activity: have them identify every day (modern) items, and then you indicate if there is software involved and maybe what the software does.
Car - fuel injection systems, display (GPS, radio, etc.), hands-free phone operation
TV - on-screen menu for choosing input, adjusting color, etc.
microwave oven - mode menu, timer
You get the idea.

Something along the line of what Chronos suggested or the unplugged activities I linked to might be your best choice for 50 minutes.

I like Chronos’ idea, too. And thanks for teaching girls about STEM! I’m a(n ancient!) mechanical designer in oil&gas, and we women are (still) few and far between, but it’s getting better and better.

I’m REALLY liking these ideas, so thanks a lot. In particular, the “Human Computer” one seems doable. I was worried about how much I could really do in 50 minutes; it’s not a lot of time, even when we’re not talking about 10 and 12 year old girls!

Any more ideas on swag? Or, even better, could I use some cool swag in a “Human Computer” kind of exercise and then let them take the swag home?

There are promotional robots like these ones:

If you make something out of food, consider food allergies when coming up with ingredients (e.g. nothing with peanuts).

Yeah, I’m leaning away from food for that reason. Plus, it’s messy.

I’m wondering about jigsaw puzzles… we have some nice company designs that are very colorful and cartoon-y that promote women in tech (we made the designs for the Grace Hopper conventions, we were a sponsor). I could get small (20-30 piece) puzzles printed up with that design, and the “human robot” part of it would be walking the robot through doing the puzzle, and at the end each girl could take a puzzle home.

It’d probably be hard to write down all the steps to actually complete the puzzle, but I doubt we’d get that far anyway:

  1. Open the box
    • I open it by smashing it on the floor and jumping up and down
  2. dump out the pieces
    • I dump them all over the floor

etc etc.

Good idea? Dumb? Somewhere in between?