How colleges are propelling women into computer science-and why

Good intentions and promising programs are not enough; how colleges are stepping up to the women in computer science challenge

computer-science-women If there is any hope of reversing the stunning decline of women’s participation in computer science, it is going to take an effort of moonshot magnitude radiating from Washington, D.C.

The handful of promising and well-meaning programs at Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley and elsewhere are a good start, but really only one small step for womankind. We need a window-rattling, world-beating blastoff that represents a giant leap—and which ensures that every girl in America takes a high-quality computer science course before she graduates from high school.

We need a nation that looks at the fact that only 17.6 percent of computer science degrees go to women and meets that challenge as if half the country weren’t being taught to read or to write a meaningful sentence.

Computing has seeped into every corner of the economy. It is the new literacy. A basic understanding of how computers work and what they can do is becoming increasingly important in landing a 21st century job.

The gender imbalance in computer science, threatens the U.S. economy and represents an economic injustice to women who are missing out on some of the best-paying jobs in the nation.

While there are plenty of noble initiatives underway to encourage women in computing, good intentions and promising programs are not enough. The nation needs to require that every high school student take at least one computer science class in order to graduate.

(Next page: Campaigns; how colleges are helping)

The country, starting with the White House, needs to launch a campaign to support computer science, just like the publicity campaign waged to raise the profile of STEM courses—or science, technology, engineering and math studies. Of course, computer science is all those things. But rarely is it included in the discussion of broadening the academic horizons of students, especially female and minority students.

“In the ideal world, every single state would require every single student to take at least one computer science course,” said Chris Stephenson, executive director of the New York-based Computer Science Teachers Association. “Computing is so ubiquitous in our world these days. To allow students to graduate with no real understanding of what is happening and how that is created is really shortsighted.”

Stephenson concedes that we live in the real world and in the real world, the politics of adding another required course in all 50 states is daunting. But the truth is, it takes hard work to solve big problems.

Some advocates are doing what they can outside of the political arena, and some colleges and universities have shown progress in increasing the number of women studying computer science.

How colleges are helping

Harvey Mudd College, which is run by a female computer scientist, has seen female enrollment in computer science reach 43 percent. Stanford has upped its percentage of women computer science graduates from the single digits four years ago to 23.5 percent last year.

The increase has to do in part with an overhaul of Stanford’s curriculum. The department created a series of tracks focused on graphics, human-computer interaction and other areas, aimed at creating a clear link between computer science and real-world work.

UCLA senior researcher Jane Margolis and other social scientists have found that women are more interested than men in seeing the connections between their computer work and society as a whole. How does computing help propel medicine forward, for instance, or support the arts or lead to deeper space exploration?

Besides Stanford’s curriculum rewrite, female section leaders in the department spent much of a school year meeting one-on-one with promising female computer science students to encourage them to press on in the subject. Sophia Westwood, a graduate student who was involved in that effort, also launched a series of informal dinners for female students to mingle with professors and other female students and to meet established women in computing.

Another student initiative, She(plus)(plus), has produced a powerful documentary featuring successful female computer science students and professionals, including Jocelyn Goldfein of Facebook, Kimber Lockhart of Box, Meebo co-founder Sandy Jen, Privahini Bradoo, CEO of BlueOak Resources, and others. The group also holds an annual summit to foster learning and networking among computer science students and women in computing.

“Every person has some sort of tipping point between, ‘Oh, I’m just taking a CS course because it’s a requirement’ to ‘I want to make this my full-fledged career,’ ” said Ellora Israni, a senior in computer science at Stanford and a She(plus)(plus) co-founder. “And I think that tipping point happens when they see someone doing it who they look up to.”

(Next page: The need for a pipeline)

At Berkeley, students have started CS KickStart, an intense program that invites women interested in computer science to on-campus workshops before classes start to sharpen coding skills. The administration this academic year launched CS Scholars, which focuses on students with little or no programming experience—often women. The scholars attend class and study together, offering support along the way.

The school also offers “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” a wildly popular course that teaches programming, but also focuses on the way computer science can be applied to solve real world problems. The idea, in part, is to bust the myth that coding is all about sitting alone typing at a keyboard all day, a perception that researchers say disproportionately discourages women from exploring computer science.

Oh, one other thing about the course: Last spring the female enrollment crossed the 50 percent barrier.

“For the first time in UC-Berkeley history, there were more women than men in a computer science course,” said Dan Garcia, a tenured lecturer who helped design the course.

But perhaps Garcia’s biggest contribution to swelling the ranks of female computer scientists is his work helping to create a massive online version of the course to guide high school teachers who want to present computing concepts to students before they reach college. He’s participated in training hundreds of high school teachers to present the course and he’s used grant money to see that the teachers are paid for their training time.

The point is to reach students who otherwise might never have a chance to discover what computer science is all about. The more girls who learn about computer science early, the thinking goes, the more who will pursue the subject in college.

“Right now,” Garcia said, “what does exist in terms of computing in high school is really broken.”

Garcia’s effort is one of several pushing to make computer science classes available to younger students. Only a small fraction—educated guesses hover in the 10 percent range—of high schools offer computer science. Searching for a more reliable figure on the number of U.S. high schools that do is maddening.

“That data is simply not available,” Stephenson said. “It isn’t tracked anywhere by anyone.”

In some ways, the lack of data is another symptom of how little emphasis the education hierarchy has placed on the subject. But imagine if it were different.

However, ensuring that the coming generation is able to take full advantage of the breakneck advance of technology and that the U.S. economy will benefit from it shouldn’t be left to a patchwork of programs on college campuses and run by nonprofits.

Reaching the moon took a bold proclamation by a young president (“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”) and the assent of Congress and the scientific community.

Seeing to it that every high school kid in the country takes a computer science course will take no less.

It’s what we need. And we need it now.


©2014 Mike Cassidy for San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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