…the future of STEM diversity.

jan 26

Making CS more inviting

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Harvey Mudd’s President, Dr. Maria Klawe. The seminar focused on her work in improving diversity in computer science (CS).

Demystifying the path to success

The path to success is not always clear. Whether in academia or business, women have lower rates of sponsorship; making ‘moving up’ quite obscure.

Dr. Maria Klawe

“If you’re a member of the dominate group you have access to information through your network that people who are not in the dominate group don’t have.” — Dr. Maria Klawe

Dr. Klawe started off the seminar with the above remark, which reminded me of my time as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. During my first year, I met many students that had opportunities to perform research either for course credit or through a summer internship. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, I did not think I was missing out on internship opportunities. I also did not know about summer research programs that would have provided a summer research stipend. I looked for paid research positions, but now that I am in the world of academic research I understand why I could never find any open positions. Ignorance is bliss, until enlightenment.

How did Harvey Mudd College demystify the path to success? They developed a research program to connect female undergraduate students with female researchers. By interacting and working with female researchers, students had a role model and mentor showing them that, ‘yes, women can be successful scientists’. I do believe there’s something powerful behind this strategy. Both my PhD and faculty mentor are highly successful women, and I talk regularly with them to learn about how they navigated through the early years of their career.

Creativity and Community

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the University of British Columbia (UBC), Harvey Mudd, and Cal Poly have all increased the number of women in their CS programs. Some of them have had remarkable success — from 10% to 40% in less than 10 years! What did they do???

Dr. Klawe noted that many of these departments changed their Introduction to Computer Science/Introduction to Programming class to make it more inviting. I believe the more common term for a difficult lower-level class is a ‘weed-out class’; any change to make a class more inviting has my vote.

For example, Harvey Mudd revamped the Introduction to Programming courses (Java based) to a Python-based course. Students have a strong interest in learning some amount of Python, especially students in the Bay Area. With one course under their belt they can get a summer internship at one of the many tech companies in the area. They also included a Python course geared towards biologists, whereby students can solve biology problems using a computer — that is definitely more inviting!

As an instructor for UC Berkeley’s Introduction to Programming for Engineers (Matlab-based), I am always trying to add interesting problems that students can see the direct impact of rather than abstract problems. This year I included a piece of my own research in biomechanics as a homework assignment. I think it went well, but as with any change in the education process, it’s hard to tell what impact, if any, was made by including biomechanics and biology related problems.

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