Toward a Level Playing Field in Computer Science

December 1, 2005

By Sara Robinson

With the technology boom of the late 1990s came a wave of incoming college
students planning to pursue careers in computer science. In response to swelling enrollments, computer science departments across the country hired new faculty. Then came the bust. Over the past four years, enrollments have leveled off and then declined, a trend that computer scientists in academia and industry find worrisome. One survey showed that enrollment in undergraduate computer science programs dropped by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2003.

In an attempt to bolster their numbers, some computer science departments are re-thinking their recruitment strategies. One largely untapped applicant pool is women. Although women account for 30�40 percent of math majors at top-ranked schools, only about 15�20 percent of computer science majors at U.S. universities are female, according to Allan Fisher, the former associate dean of undergraduate education in the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

In this setting, a successful program at CMU's school of computer science, de-signed to create and support opportunities for women, has attracted widespread attention. The key strategy, people involved in the CMU effort say, is to get out the message that computer science is a broad and vibrant field of study that encompasses much more than just programming. "Students and the public equate computer science with programming," says Lenore Blum, a mathematician and computer scientist who is one of the leaders of the CMU effort. "I believe this identification is a major reason for the decline in interest in majoring in CS, particularly with the dot-com bust and fears of outsourcing."

CMU's message is reflected in enhanced recruitment efforts, revamped admissions criteria, and a retooling of the undergraduate curriculum and support structure. The effect of these efforts has been not only to increase the numbers of women applying, getting accepted to, and graduating from CMU, but also to attract a broader spectrum of men. "It's important to explain to students that computer science is broad and important and meaningful," Fisher says. "It's important for both sexes, but particularly for women."

In 1995, when Fisher and Jane Margolis, a social scientist, initiated some of the core elements of the program, only 8 percent of incoming computer science majors at CMU were female. The fraction of women increased to 19 percent by 1998, and to 39 percent by 2000. (During the last four years, it has hovered around 35 percent.) In 1999, when Blum moved to CMU (from Berkeley), she added a mentoring and professional support system for women within the school of computer science. "Without such an infrastructure to help level the professional playing field, many of the new recruits to the field would soon drop out," she says. This spring, Blum received the 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, in part for her contributions to the CMU program.

CMU's top-ranked computer science program is unusual in that it admits all of its students directly from high school, rather than allowing them to declare a computer science major after one or two years of study. Nonetheless, Blum says, the key innovations in the CMU program can easily be modified for use at other universities. "Everything we do is adaptable to another venue."

Redefining Computer Science and Revamping the Admissions Process
In 1994, when Fisher met Margolis--who is now in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles--he was already looking for ways to bolster the numbers of women and minorities participating in CMU's computer science program. The following year, the computer science department created a visiting research position for Margolis, and together, she and Fisher set out to learn whether there were systematic differences in the background and motivations of the men and women entering the program.

Their four-year study resulted in a book, Unlocking the Clubhouse, that generated a buzz in academic circles. A theme of the book is that the men and women entering the CMU computer science program tended to have very different motivations, which were rooted in their childhood experiences. The men were more likely to major in computer science as an extension of a lifelong passion for computing, the researchers found, while the women were more likely to be motivated by applications. "Of the people who come to study CS, an awful lot of men are drawn by loving computers and not as high a proportion of women," Fisher says.

Fisher believes that this finding reflects not an essential difference between men and women, but rather a cultural phenomenon: There is a group of boys who grow up fascinated by computers, and learn to program at an early age, he explains. "I don't have a sense of why there is this group of boys and why there isn't a corresponding large group of girls."

Blum agrees with Fisher and Margolis that men are more likely than women to be drawn to computing at a young age, but urges caution about formulating broad stereotypes. "To pigeonhole women as loving applications and men as loving the computer, that makes no sense to me," she says.

Moreover, once students have been exposed to a broader view of computer science, Blum notes, the motivational gender gap described by Fisher and Margolis largely disappears. In a recent study, Blum and Carol Frieze, a special faculty member in CMU's school of computer science, interviewed graduating seniors in the classes of 2002 and 2004. They found virtually no differences in the motivations of the men and the women. "Some women are motivated by applications, so are some men. Mostly, everyone likes and is motivated by a combination of theory, applications, and the computer itself," says Blum. "We attribute these similarities to a more balanced microculture within the department, and to an environment that is not only more balanced in gender, but in the mix of students, and in the breadth of their interests."

Students at CMU now begin learning about the breadth of opportunities in computer science in their freshman year. Reacting to initial anecdotal feedback from their interviews, Fisher and Margolis began a seminar in 1995 to introduce incoming students to some of the different areas of research. "For the subjects that aren't taught systematically in high school, this is necessary," Fisher says.

Next, Fisher looked into the criteria used in admitting computer science majors. Even though admissions counselors were allowed to take economic, ethnic, and gender diversity into account, few women were being admitted. Fisher learned that, in addition to considering the usual grades and test scores, the admissions office was giving a high weight to programming experience. At the same time, looking at data collected by the computer science department, he found that prior programming experience had no correlation with subsequent performance. Accordingly, admissions officials were instructed to look for evidence of potential, as indicated by strong academic performance in math and science, regardless of familiarity with programming. "If it's mainly about programming, you'll mainly get guys," Fisher says.

"Actually, you'll mainly get geeky guys," Blum says: "The ones already working with computers are not necessarily going to be the visionary computer scientists."

With this in mind, Raj Reddy, then dean of the school of computer science, urged a second round of changes in the admissions criteria. Starting in 1999, the admissions counselors were instructed to look for highly creative students with strong leadership skills, on top of the usual academic criteria. "We were still admitting only one out of eight applicants," Fisher says. "The students we had accepted had phenomenal SAT scores--we found we could take other factors into account and still have phenomenal SAT scores."

With the new admissions criteria, CMU brought in a very different group of students. The group had a higher percentage of women, but also included a more diverse group of men. Most of the students had some experience with computers, but not necessarily programming experience. Fisher points to another group tapped by the new admissions policies: strong foreign applicants with no prior computer experience who had been sponsored to study computer science in the U.S.

Because of the many incoming students lacking experience with computers, the department decided to offer three tracks of basic coursework: one for those with no programming experience, another--the old program--for those with a lot of programming experience, and a third track between the two extremes. The assumption was that by the end of the second year, the three tracks would converge and all students would begin taking the same classes. "It's important to make sure that you don't drive out people with little experience," Fisher says. "If things go badly, the people who are wondering if they belong are more likely to leave."

Increasing the Applicant Pool
When Fisher and Margolis formed their partnership, they began thinking about ways of reaching out to strong high school programs to recruit more students. At the same time, several other faculty members at CMU who had been involved in creating the computer science advanced placement exam were gearing up for a scheduled change in the programming language of the exam from Pascal to C++.

Seeing an opportunity, Fisher and Margolis, with two colleagues, applied for funding to enhance and enlarge a program that had been in place at CMU since 1983. That program provides workshops for teachers of advanced placement CS from high schools around the country. The enhanced program, which began in 1997, paid travel and lodging costs for 240 participating teachers. The workshops not only taught the new programming language, but also provided systematic training in gender issues.

Following their experience in the workshops, many of the high school teachers recommended that their students apply to CMU, and CMU enrolled many more students from those classes than they had in the past. Blum believes that much of the increase in female applicants to the CMU program was due to the enhanced program, not so much because of the specific training in gender issues, but because the high school teachers got the message that CMU was interested in female applicants. "When I asked women students in our department why they decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon," she says, "I was very often told, �My teacher came to a summer workshop at Carnegie Mellon. He loved it and said they were interested in women. He said: Go there!'"

The enhanced program was funded only through 1999, when the change in the AP exam language went into effect, and there was no attempt to re-instate it. Blum and colleagues have been working with participants in the regular ongoing workshops to address misconceptions about computer science. Although the AP course syllabi necessarily center on programming--the focus of the AP exam--teachers are eager to introduce additional material, she says. For the past few summers, CMU has informally included lectures on other areas of computer science in the workshops. Next summer, they plan to launch this effort on a large scale, inviting all teachers who have participated in the CMU workshops to a three-day conference. There, teachers will hear about such topics as algorithms, search, computational biology, learning theory, social robots, and women and minorities in computer science.

Creating a Community
Fisher left CMU in 1999 to form a company, iCarnegie, which provides Web-based courses in software development. That same year, Blum joined the department, eager to continue her longtime efforts to increase the participation of women in math and computer science. In the 1970s, Blum had founded the math and computer science department at Mills College, a women's college in Oakland, California, and she chaired the department for 13 years. She is also a founder and the third president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, and she helped create the Expanding Your Horizons network, which sponsors math/science conferences for high school girls.

By the time Blum arrived at CMU, the computer science program had a much larger percentage of women than in the past, but she found that little had been done to educate the faculty about the change in the student body and the reasons behind it. In addition, she was concerned that there were no structures in place to support the professional development of the students.

One problem she identified was that men and women did not have equal access to re-sources. For instance, one useful source of study material was the files in fraternity houses of old exams for required computer science courses. Also, many male students were paired with other computer science majors in the dormitories, while women, because of their smaller numbers, were far less likely to be paired with other computer science majors.

To address these issues, Blum founded an organization called Women@SCS. The goal of the program, which Frieze now directs, is to help foster a community atmosphere among the women in the school of computer science. One feature is a Big Sister program, in which incoming women are paired with older students who could advise them on courses and offer support. Another is a program that provides opportunities for undergraduate research. Blum and Frieze also launched a resource page ( and an online advice network, available to all students, for information on teachers and courses, as well as a series of faculty�student events.

Three years ago, several enthusiastic female students created a slide presentation for use in computer science recruitment efforts at high schools and middle schools. The goal of the presentation--dubbed "The Outreach Road Show"--is to dispel common misconceptions about computer science, in part by featuring pictures of people--including women--who are far from the usual computer science stereotype, and to show students the spectrum of interesting jobs available to people with computer science degrees. A group of CMU graduate students have produced a more sophisticated version for presentation to undergraduates.

The featured CMU students, all women, tell their personal stories and give short overviews of their research. Their audiences consist of students of both sexes, and the goal is to educate everyone about the breadth of research in computer science. "We were motivated to do it because of the women, but now it's benefiting everyone," Blum says.

Sara Robinson is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, California.

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