More women in Computer Science – a simple solution from Harvey Mudd

An interesting story from the New York Times shows how current president of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe, turned her school into a computer science powerhouse for women.

She started her work in 2006, amidst a big downturn in female computer science graduates. “As recently as 1985, 37 percent of graduates in the field were women; by 2005 it was down to 22 percent, and sinking.”

Harvey Mudd was even worse with graduates in the single digits. This year that rate is nearly 40% and here’s how it happened:

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.

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.

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.”

Dr. Klawe supported the cause wholeheartedly, and provided money from the college for every female freshman to travel to the annual Grace Hopper conference, named after a pioneering programmer. The conference, where freshmen are surrounded by female role models, has inspired many a first-year “Mudder” to explore computer science more seriously.

via NY Times