Revamped Computer Science Classes Attracting More Girls

By Kristen V. Brown
San Francisco Chronicle.

Peering out from behind the cool glow of iPads and MacBook Pros, some students sit with rapt attention. A few appear lost in daydreams, or perhaps just lost. At least two cruise Facebook.

It is a predictable college scene, but this Berkeley computer science class is at the vanguard of a tech world shift. The class has 106 women and 104 men.

The gender flip first occurred last spring. It was the first time since at least 1993 — as far back as university enrollment records are digitized — that more women enrolled in an introductory computer science course. It was likely the first time ever.

It’s a small but a significant benchmark. Male computer science majors still far outnumber female, but Prof. Dan Garcia’s class is a sign that efforts to attract more women to a field where they have always been vastly underrepresented are working.

“We are starting to see a shift,” said Telle Whitney, president of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

Berkeley, Stanford and a handful of other universities have experienced a marked uptick in the numbers of female computer science students. Those increases have also coincided with a reimagining of computer science classes, especially introductory ones. In some cases, that meant doing away with aspects of classes that seemed to specifically discourage young women.

For Garcia’s course, which is for nonmajors, the goal was to expand the class beyond “just programming,” to make it “kind of right-brained as well.”

Berkeley put more emphasis on the impact and relevance of computing in the world, and added pair exercises. Each class begins with a discussion of a recent tech-related news article. Introduction to Symbolic Programming was reborn as Beauty and the Joy of Computing.

While redesigning the course wasn’t strictly to attract women, said Garcia, “everything that turns women off, we reversed it.”

Attracting more women to computer science is invariably a good thing. Nationally, women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, but only 12 percent of computer science degrees, according to a 2009 report by the National Science Foundation. This comes as technology industries rank among the fastest growing in the nation. But the way schools choose to attract women can pose a challenge.

Gender-neutral models

“It can be problematic to assume that all women are a certain way and therefore you should cater to that,” said Sapna Cheryan, a University of Washington psychologist who has studied stereotypes in computer science. “What we do today to get girls in the classroom could have adverse affects on girls later.”

Cheryan pointed to “My Fair Physicist,” a much-cited 2012 University of Michigan study that questioned whether having more feminine role models in science and math fields could counteract the discouraging stereotype that those fields are unfeminine.

The study found that feminine role models actually reduced middle school girls’ interest and perception of their own ability in math compared to more gender-neutral role models.

For Sumer Mohammed, 21, Beauty and Joy of Computing got her hooked. Before registering, she knew nothing about programming, but decided based on her father’s recommendation and the course title that “it might not be boring lines of code everywhere.”
Boring it was not.

“It was so much fun. And very creative,” said Mohammed, who took Garcia’s class in 2011, the year after the revamp. She’s now a bona fide convert: an electrical engineering and computer science major and a teaching assistant for Garcia’s class. She is also spreading the gospel, having successfully convinced her roommate to minor in the concentration.

The lack of women in tech has long been lamented by the industry — research has shown it would likely benefit economically, as well as socially, from an increased female presence.

But problems persist in getting women to even consider the field an option.

For one, there are few female role models and a massive misperception of the field among women. A 2008 study by the Association for Computing Machinery, consulted in designing the Berkeley course, found that while college-bound boys equated words like “interesting,” “video games,” and “solving problems” with computing, girls associated terms like “typing,” “math” and “boredom.”

Tackling misperceptions

“Before I took Beauty and Joy I just thought computer science was people pent up in a room coding, looking like I look right before midterms,” said Arany Uthanyakumar, 18, who took the Berkeley class last fall and also fell for it.

And those same gendered perceptions of the tech world also mean that boys often get exposure to computing much younger than girls. Even if women do eventually get exposure to the field, the lag time can continue to be discouraging.

“Even now, I still have the perception that they’re better,” said Mohammed. Many of the men in her class, she said, have years more experience.

At Berkeley, the percentage of female computer science majors in the College of Letters and Science nearly doubled from 2009 to 2013, to 21 percent.

Stanford similarly revamped its computer science program to make it more widely attractive in 2008. Since then, female computer science enrollment has grown steeply, from 12.5 percent in 2008 to 21 percent in 2013.

Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont (Los Angeles County), was among the first universities to dramatically increase its female computer science enrollment.

“Girls say they won’t like computer science, won’t be good at it and don’t want to associate with the people they think are good at it,” said college President Maria Klawe. “We’ve got to fix those three things: make it interesting, nonintimidating and obvious that the people who do this stuff are attractive, have good social skills and are not just dorks.”

Interests differ

Research has time and again found that there are some marked differences in what interests boys and girls in computing.

Generally, girls care more about the creativity and potential to make an impact on the world.

But there is a fine line between creating the perception that computer science isn’t just for boys and the image that girls can do it because it’s “girly” or less complicated.

“It’s this cycle. You’re reinforcing an image of what is appropriate for girls,” said Cheryan. “It’s a tension between how do you get girls in now, but also what are you saying to future girls?”

The title Beauty and Joy of Computing was inspired by a speech by IBM software engineer Grady Booch. But, noted Klawe, it does border on sending the message that the class is “a little fluffy.”

In the end, it was the perception that the class wasn’t just pushing that masculine computing stereotype that got Mohammed, the Berkeley junior, in the door.

“Before I really just saw it as one of those things boys do,” she said.

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