Two Women-in-Science Notes

Two things I was forwarded or pointed toward this week, that interact a little oddly. First chronologically is from the New York Times, which has a story about how Harvey Mudd College has boosted the number of female computer science majors, by committing serious resources to reforming the intro course (which is required of all students there):

Known as CS 5, the course focused on hard-core programming, appealing to a particular kind of student -- young men, already seasoned programmers, who dominated the class. This only reinforced the women's sense that computer science was for geeky know-it-alls.

"Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with," said Zachary Dodds, a computer scientist at Mudd. "We realized we were helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course."

To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two sections -- "gold," for those with no prior experience, and "black" for everyone else. Java, a notoriously opaque programming language, was replaced by a more accessible language called Python. And the focus of the course changed to computational approaches to solving problems across science.

"We realized that we needed to show students computer science is not all about programming," said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, chairman of the department. "It has intellectual depth and connections to other disciplines."

This is really good to hear, though the article suffers the problems typical of such pieces in the New York Times: it ends up mostly being a glowing profile of one charismatic individual, in this case college president Maria Klawe, and only in passing acknowledges the faculty who actually did the work. Just before the quoted bit, there's the sentence "In 2005, the year before Dr. Klawe arrived, a group of faculty members embarked on a full makeover of the introductory computer science course, a requirement at Mudd." which makes it a little weird that the article focuses so much on her. But, as I said, this is entirely typical of the Times.

The other story is a pop-up-ridden piece from LiveScience about research into what techniques work to boost female interest in physics, which appears to be sparked by this session at the APS April Meeting, and refers to this research group at Clemson. Their finding is both simple and surprising: only one of the commonly used tactics for trying to draw more women into the field that they studied made any significant difference. What worked? Explicitly discussing in class the underrepresentation of women in physics.

On the one hand, that's good news, as the alternative suggested by the Times piece, namely, "get a charismatic female college or university president to pony up cash to send every women in intro physics to a conference" probably doesn't scale up very well. On the other hand, it's tantalizingly vague as presented on LiveScience-- what constitutes discussion for these purposes? how much time is spent on this? how big an effect is this really?-- and the article in question doesn't appear to be online anywhere. It's something to keep an eye out for, anyway, though if anybody reading this knows more details, I'd be happy to hear them.

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I'm not clear how much this means happening at a pure STEM college like Mudd, where a gain in CS means a loss from another field. After all, it wouldn't be an optimistic article written about the departments that are losing students. "Prof Mudd, noticing there were too many women in biology, redesigned the BIO 5 course to focus on the Javanese Python and succeeded in reducing the number of female students."

Carnegie Mellon I am curious about. I enjoyed reading "Unlocking the Clubhouse" about the research and initiatives surrounding how they went from entering CS majors being 9% women in 1995 to 42% in 2000. But notice that when the NYT article mentions Carnegie Mellon it says that the percentage "has been rising since 2008, and is at 32 percent." I'd like to know what the CM project has learned from the last ten years about making their program sustainable.

By Mark Schaal (not verified) on 05 Apr 2012 #permalink