Browsing articles tagged with " College"

What a Woman Wants: Will Computer Science Programs Step Up?

Sep 18, 2012   //   by Karen Lopez   //   Blog, Professional Development, WIT  //  9 Comments

For more than a decade I’ve worked on teams that accredit college and university programs in computer science, information systems, and technology.  For the most part the criteria we use for computer science programs has been traditional: algorithms, programming, math, software engineering, components and architectures, models of computation, analysis of algorithms, fundamentals of program specification and verification, computational complexity, automata, etc.  There are requirements for humanities and other subjects, but it is rare to see programs remain unaccredited if they were missing them.  A sample set of criteria can be found on the CIPS website.

One of the things that annoyed me during computer science accreditation visits were the all too common references to women not being able to succeed in CS programs.  When I’d ask why, I was usually given one of these types of answers:

  1. Women are incapable of thinking of complex topics
  2. Women just don’t want to learn computer science
  3. Women don’t want to study in programs where they are outnumbered
  4. We’d have to dumb down the programs too much (see point 1).

It took all my might to simply record their responses and not fight it out.  I figured their answers might be a reflection of their program administration and management than of the women they are running out of their programs.  For instance, a computer science program chair told me directly that if he had to dumb down his program enough to get women to stay, "no one would be able to log in".  Tell me what sort of rewarding student experiences the females in his classes have on a daily basis?

Applied vs. Research Programs in Computing

One of the issues computer science programs have is managing the fact that they often exist as a research program but many students are more interested in studying computing at an applied level.  In other professions, applied means just that – learning to apply sciences in a practical, real world environment.  Other professions produce professionals just that way: lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers. For the most part, they study in applied programs.  But in the research world, applied is the equivalent of dumbed down. So many computer science programs are designed to produce researchers even though the vast majority of students are there not to become researchers, but practitioners.  And yet most women are drawn to professions where they can see a direct link to studying and working on projects that will change the world.

I was thinking about this while speaking on the #SQLSat157 San Diego WIT panel this past weekend. When I got home, I found this great interview with Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College: Q&A What Women Want in the Communications of the ACM.  One of the questions was exactly what I experienced when choosing a program of study all those years ago:

You’ve talked before about the importance of teaching practical applications from the start, rather than waiting until students have mastered the building blocks.

We know from research that for women and minorities, the attraction of computer science is what you can do with it. It doesn’t mean they are not interested in complexity theory or other esoteric parts of the field, it just means that that tends to be the driving motivation. And in our experience, it’s not like women take one course or go to the Hopper conference and say, "I want to be a computer science major." It’s more like, you take one course or go to the Hopper conference, and you take the next course. And then you take the course after that, and by then you’ve taken three courses and you’re going, "Oh, I’m actually good at this, and it gets me summer jobs. Maybe I should be a CS major."

The curmudgeon computer science chair and his colleagues also had thoughts on programs that shifted their marketing and delivery, but not their content, to appeal more to women and minorities: it was cheating.  As an IT professional, I say "Let’s cheat, then".  Let’s ensure that computers science and other technology programs can step up their game to be more appealing.  As a business person and someone who interviews candidates for jobs, I want to see people who understand theory AND application of it all.  Cost, benefit , risk and all.  Saving the world.  Making a difference.

Information systems and technology programs are generally applied programs of study.  However, we tend to see them as lesser siblings of computer science.  Maybe we shouldn’t, especially as employers for organizations that don’t directly hire researchers.

Step Up

Do we need theoretical, research-only computer science programs?  ABSOLUTELY!  But we also need IT professionals who can fit solutions into a corporate environment.  One that can’t just think in terms of theory.  And I want a more diverse, educated workforce available to hire from.  Not just for the numbers, but because we get better solutions.  But in order to get this, our programs of study need to step up.

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