Geeks With Blogs
Brian Scarbeau Insights from a seasoned Computer Science Trainer

The Boston Globe  website has an article entitled In computer science, a growing gender gap Women shunning a field once seen as welcoming. As a computer science educator and father of two daughters I read these type of articles with great interest and wonder if everyone in this industry does their part to make females feel welcome in their class or at work.

Are courses too male oriented that females feel unwelcome and leave? Do they get the same jobs as males or do they get the jobs that males don't want to do and leave?

The lack of interest in computer science is not just in females but males as well. Colleges and universities see steady declines in their enrollments and more recently Tulane University in New Orleans which will open up next semester after the hurricane has dropped computer science in the curriculum. High schools are facing this problem and we too are scrambling for students.

Many of us in the high school world have done our part in making our classes welcome to females. In my web design class which has many females enroll in have had the opportunity to do some web programming in class. Many high school students have no clue what programming is all about and after I instruct them on what the command does we talk more about programming and I try to spark an interest so they would continue to take more computer science courses in programming. 

As teachers we have talked to the guidance department counselors to identify students with good math scores and try to encourage them to take computer science courses. We have spoken to middle school students about high school courses. We have spoken to math teachers to identify students as well. Finally, we have spoken to parents as well.

Even after all this work, in 11 years of teaching AP Computer Science, I've had only 5 females in my class. Many have started the course and after a week wanted to drop out. However, I'm good at persuasion and they stayed in the class and did quite well and passed the AP exam.

No one seems to have the answer as to what to do but at least people are trying. For example, Pat Phillips from mainfunction.com has written several articles on this subject in her blog.

On a broader level, the National Science Foundation will soon announce a new set of grants to universities, high schools, and industry groups with creative ideas for attracting women to computer science. A two-year-old organization called the National Center for Women & Information Technology has designated several schools and groups, including the Girl Scouts, to identify solutions.

At MIT, where the percentage of women is much lower in computer science than in the general student body, the electrical engineering and computer science department will pilot two new introductory classes this spring. One will use robots to try to capture the excitement of the subject, and the other will provide basic background aimed at students who didn't take Advanced Placement computer science in high school.

Here's what's scary:

The shortage of new computer scientists threatens American leadership in technological innovation just as countries such as China and India are gearing up for the kind of competition the United States has never before faced.

The US economy is expected to add 1.5 million computer- and information-related jobs by 2012, while this country will have only half that many qualified graduates.

So what can you do to help? Get involved with your local school is a start. As a professional, you can volunteer to go to a math or science class and talk about what you do for a living. Contact your local high school to see if they teach programming and volunteer to help the teacher. Be a guest lecturer or guest speaker.

Your local teacher will be extremely grateful as I encourage you to put that on your list as you create your New Years resolution.

Posted on Sunday, December 18, 2005 2:51 AM | Back to top

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