How colleges are propelling women into computer science-and why

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)

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