The former educator talks about leaving the world of teaching to help mould the next generation of girls in STEM and coding.
“I started The Lavender Spaceship Project – and left my job as a full-time teacher – because I found my purpose and wanted to do something different on my own. Based on my experience as an educator – and a mother to a daughter – I wanted to promote girls in tech.
My daughter is a creative person who’s very into drawing and the arts. She’s in college now, but when she was in grade seven, I told her, ‘Why don’t you try some coding and see whether you like it?’
In our society, being creative and being analytical are exclusively mutual. They’re viewed as completely separate. You’re either into the arts or into tech and coding. That’s just how it is – especially back then – but I didn’t necessarily agree.
So my daughter went to a coding class, and when she came back, she said she wasn’t going back. I asked her what happened, and she said there were 20 boys and only two girls, and she was one of them. She didn’t have fun; coding is not for her.
My daughter is a bright student, and her wanting to quit had nothing to do with a lack of ability. She just had this general perception that coding wasn’t for her. And it reminded me of my own days in college when I was one of the few girls in coding.
When I was pursuing my Masters in mathematics, I did some coding courses and dabbled in Java and SQL. But I never pursued coding professionally. I ended up becoming an educator. I taught Maths in primary and middle school for a long time.
I never really questioned why there weren’t many girls in coding. But recently, I decided to research more on it. Some people assume boys are naturally wired to be analytical, while girls are more inclined in the arts. But there are no differences in the cognitive or intellectual abilities.
When it comes to something physical like weightlifting, yes, girls are built smaller than boys. But when it comes to coding, it really boils down to interest, and whether a girl can see herself doing something she might not be familiar with, or thought wasn’t for her.
So in 2018, I came up with a coding programme that’s specially designed for girls. I tied in my previous coding knowledge, and I really wanted to see how the response would be. That’s how The Lavender Spaceship Project came about.
What inspired the name? Lavender, to me, is a feminine colour that represents the female gender. Spaceship brings to mind things like technology, STEM, coding, engineering and mathematics. You put it all together and it’s quite a mouthful, but it sticks.
We teach girls between the ages of seven and 18. I cannot emphasise enough how starting early is extremely important. From as young as six, girls form a notion of who they are, what they like and don’t like, what they can and cannot do, based on what they see around them.
When I was coming up with the coding programme for The Lavender Spaceship Project, I had to educate myself. I needed to understand STEM in today’s world, and how coding ties into it. I did a lot of reading, and I also got certification through various courses.
Most importantly, I needed to understand what’s missing in the existing curriculums. What is it that girls need? And how can we do things differently – do things better – to fill those gaps. I had to talk to a lot of girls to get the answers, and I started weaving everything in.
Our girl-centric model focuses on context-driven coding. We create projects around themes like ‘empathy’. We give them a scenario, and explore how we can solve the problem using coding skills. This helps our girls see themselves as creators of technology that help society.
We also highlight female role models in STEM very systematically. Girls need to see women who look like them; women who’ve done amazing things. We expose them to different women in STEM regularly, because showing just one isn’t enough to inspire them
Female presence is important in STEM, because certain things that have been engineered, cannot be reversed. For example, when the seatbelt was first made in the US in the 70s, they designed it around a male dummy.
The female physique was not put into consideration. That problem, which was mechanical in nature, was later sorted after research and feedback. And now, with AI technology like ChatGPT, it’s even more crucial to have females in tech.
It’s important not to have a homogenous team of people feeding AI technology like ChatGPT with data that are old-fashioned and biased against women. So it’s not just girls who need tech, but tech also needs women.
What keeps me motivated is purpose. I cannot imagine doing anything else. When I get feedback from my team that the girls are motivated to continue with our courses, it’s such a motivator for everyone. We want to make it the best possible coding programme there is for girls.” – Pranati Bagchi
Interview by Arman Shah
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