How colleges are propelling women into computer science-and why

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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