Including women in CS at Whitman

In the last week, three different people have asked me what we are doing at Whitman to ensure women are included in the CS program. I guess that means it’s time to write a blog post.

I’ll address what we’re doing now, the effects we’re seeing, and what I think we will be doing in the future.

What we’re doing now:

  • We were aggressive about placing first-year students with significant prior programming experience into CS 270, Data Structures, rather than CS 167, Introduction to Computational Problem Solving. We want CS 167 to be a class for beginners, and beginners can be intimidated by students who are more confident than they are. This fall, all the first-year students placed into CS 270 were men, and most of the women in CS167 do not have prior programming experience.
  • In both classes, we use pair programming, which has been shown to increase retention of CS students (especially women) and reduce the confidence gap between women and men. When forming partner rotations, we take experience, personality, and abilities into account. One of the great advantages of teaching CS at a liberal arts college is that we have small classes and can get to know our students.
  • Andy and I have adopted a new textbook for CS167 that includes a range of interdisciplinary applications. First, this means the examples aren’t all biased towards stereotypically masculine interests. Second, research suggests that women and minorities are more motivated by using technology to help people than by the technology itself. (As CS 167 class mentor Annabella, Sociology ’17, likes to say, women see technology as a tool, while men often see it as a toy.)
  • Similarly, I love that my Discrete Math textbook uses gender-neutral examples such as crop rotations, combinatorial menus, library records, and song lyrics. A project will let students model data that they are interested in. CS 167 will also have an open-ended project at the end of the semester.
  • We aim to provide students with a range of role models:
    • I think it’s significant that the founding chair is a woman. Beyond that, the three CS faculty have quite different personalities and interests.
    • CS 167 and CS 270 have class mentors, a model I imported from Grinnell.  A class mentor is a student who has taken the class before. The mentor attends the class, serves as a lab assistant, and runs weekly mentor sessions. I was careful to make sure that Andy’s and John’s classes would have at least one female mentor.
    • We also have lab aides, who staff the CS lab after hours, providing technical help and informal tutoring. This spring, all the lab aides were men; the cadre now includes several women.
    • Working with the student engagement center, we make space in our classes for alumni visitors such as Meghan Urback ’09 and Cathryn Posey ’04.
    • CS 167 includes short “Significant Bits” presentations. When adopting the assignment from Albert, I made a point to add more questions addressing contributions by women and minorities, such as, “What role does Megan Smith serve at the White House? What are some of her office’s accomplishments?”
  • We encourage women who do well in our classes to continue, for example, by inviting them to serve as class mentors or lab aides.
  • A few weeks ago, I took a group of seven students to the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. To maximize impact, I focused on CS@W club leadership and class mentors.
  • We aim to cultivate a growth mindset when it comes to computer science in both ourselves and our students.
  • We talk about these issues, with each other and with our students. I particularly appreciate that my male colleagues talk about women in computing, so it’s not just me.

Right now, we have a fair number of women in CS 167. For example, my section has 8 women out of 21 students total, about 40%. It has been heartwarming to hear from several women that CS167 is their favorite class and they are now considering a CS major. Unfortunately, CS/MATH 220 and CS 270 each have only a handful of women. There are still fewer women in upper-level courses. I am hopeful we will see more women at the 200-level and beyond as changes to CS 167 and student culture take effect.

What we plan to do in the future:

  • We are designing a major that can be readily completed in three years, so that students can complete a CS major even if they don’t take a CS class during their first year. Because of the cultural association of programming with masculinity, men are more likely to arrive with prior programming experience, or at least an interest in CS, while women are more likely to discover that interest in college.
  • Our lab walls are bare. We aim to furnish them in a way that is welcoming to all students. Richie got excited about this at Tapia and has promised to help us develop some ideas.
  • I would love to get students interested in CS outreach to local K-12 schools, perhaps partnering with a national program such as Hour of CodeIgniteCS, or Girls Who Code. I have a feeling this is something women may be disproportionately interested in.
  • I included community-based projects in my HCI class. I hope to include community-based learning projects in the forthcoming CS capstone course.
  • Similar to assigning pair programming partners, we will need to pay attention to gender dynamics in assigning project teams in a CS capstone course or other upper-level classes with a large team project.
  • We plan to discuss this document to identify other things we should be paying attention to.

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