FIRST OF A TWO-PART SERIES
The computer science field is booming, yet women are still underrepresented within it. Research shows one reason is that girls are not as exposed to computer science in K-12 education. So universities are reaching out to schools to introduce computing earlier.
Keira Southard is one of three girls at Terre Haute’s Lost Creek Elementary School building a robot after classes have ended for the day. The other groups are all made up of boys, but that doesn’t bother Southard.
“All the boys are getting a little wild,” she says. “But we like to get stuff done.”
The project is part of MakerSpace Club, a program aimed at introducing kids to computer science. After the robot is assembled, they’ll be able to program it to move using a tablet computer.
David Fisher, a Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology computer science professor, is a mentor for the program. He also organizes a summer camp for elementary and middle school students to introduce them to coding.
“Whenever we make the advertisement, we’ll try to emphasize the fact that you can really do something with it, which tends to attract girls better,” Fisher says. “And also, the opportunity for creativity tends to attract girls better.”
He says the first year they held the camp, there was an even gender split in the elementary school group. But in the middle school group, there was just one girl who registered – so they had to even it up via extra recruitment.
A recent study shows when many girls stop thinking about computer science. The data suggest it happens most in high school – either because computing isn’t taught, or it’s no longer enjoyable to girls.
But university officials are trying to combat both of those issues. Many have thrown their support behind Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposal to require a computer science class in every high school.
Purdue University senior Janka Gal went to a high school that did offer CS classes. Before then, she hadn’t even realized that she could major in computer science.
Gal, like many other women in the field, was more invested once she heard about computing’s real-world applications – such as the app she created in class that she can use to make digital scrapbooks.
“I think it looks nice and it works,” she says. “So, it’s cool to have something I helped make that does something and that we made from scratch.”
That’s exactly what universities are stressing during a major rebranding of CS.
Purdue distributes targeted marketing materials to prospective female students. They feature women in the department, as well as student organizations and careers for so-called ‘change-makers’.
Back at Rose-Hulman, CS professor David Mutchler is focusing on breaking stereotypes, specifically referencing the longtime use of video games in computer science imagery.
“Video games then, and still today, are largely directed at boys. There are some great games for girls now, but there were none ten years ago,” Mutchler says. “So, that image is what kept us from getting anywhere.”
That image of the boys club still persists, though. For example, according to Computer Science for All, a federal program aimed at increasing diversity in CS, male computer scientists and engineers outnumber women 5-to-1 on television. And in family films, the disparity is nearly three times as wide.
Rose-Hulman engineering professor Carlotta Berry says despite being exposed to computer science, that kind of portrayal has a lasting ability to turn girls away from the field.
“There’s this image that that stuff’s for boys,” Berry says. “Boys program, boys are good at math, boys are good at science – girls shouldn’t do that stuff. So once they get that stigma in their mind, it’s kind of really hard to get them back.”
Universities have focused on getting girls attracted to computer science early, then sustaining that interest until it’s time to pick a college.