Three steps to quadrupling female computer science majors

Harvey Mudd College boosted share from 10% to 40% in four years

In four years, Harvey Mudd College managed to grow the share of female computer science majors from 10% to 40% in just a few years by implementing a three-step program.

Women not only earn a disproportionately smaller share of undergraduate degrees in STEM, they also represent fewer than 25% of workers in STEM fields, according to data from the Department of Commerce.

The institution implemented the program in 2006 when Maria Klawe, a mathematician and computer scientist, became president. The computer science department professors created the plan to boost the number of female students in classes in hopes more would declare computer science as their major.

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Step one

First, the department reworked class titles to appear more welcoming and content to be more approachable. For example, "Introduction to programming in Java" was replaced with "Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python." The latter coding language is more practical and easier to learn.

They also split classes into "Gold" and "Black" groups, for those who had no and some coding experience, respectively. Men who "showed-off" in class were taken aside and praised for being passionate, but also asked to keep those conversations to one-on-one interactions with the professor.

Step two

Second, female professor brought students the annual Grace Hopper Conference, which spotlights women in technology fields. The field trip provided female students with an opportunity to see and meet successful women in the industry.

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Step three

Third, between freshman and sophomore year, students could work in research at the school and apply their classroom skills to develop real-world solutions. Some students worked on education games, while others helped create a dance game for the elderly.

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The end result

By making introductory courses enjoyable, providing role models, and showing applicable uses of skills, the department succeeded in growing the share of female majors. Northwestern University, Duke University, and University of California-Berkeley have used similar tactics and seen similar success, Manoush Zomorodi reports for Quartz.

Online boot camps have also seen success recruiting women, and many come close to achieving gender parity among their students (Zomorodi, Quartz, 3/26/2014; García Mathewson, Education Dive, 2/11).

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