Debugging the Gender Inequity in Computer Science

DSC05536Surveying her students, Westminster College computer science professor Dr. Helen Hu is often reminded of the gender inequity in her field. It’s not unusual for Hu to be the only woman in the room in upper level computer science courses, and she can even recall a second semester course that consisted of only male students. Yet Hu is working on several strategies to correct the gender imbalance in computer science.

WestminsterAWEFor the past ten years, Hu has taught a programming course to eighth grade girls at Westminster’s AWE+SUM camp. Although the popular, three-day sleep-away camp usually draws between 60 and 80 girls each summer, Hu knows that it’s too short of a time to have a long-term effect. As a college professor with limited time, she felt that making an impact on high school teachers might be the best way to encourage more girls to pursue computer science.

Seizing the Opportunity

CSTA_logoHu took a sabbatical to work on this challenge. She began the Utah chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), a national advocacy group for K-12 computer science education. Learning much about computer science education in these meetings, she found that several schools in Utah restricted students from taking computer science classes until eleventh grade.  She thought about the effect that could have on her enthusiastic eighth grade campers.

“When they’re interested, you want to grab them because that interest may not last for two years,” Hu said.

Hu also learned that Utah had a required half-year computer technology course that focused on learning Microsoft Office applications, which does not necessarily spark an interest in programming.

ECSlogoHu looked to a UCLA-developed program called “Exploring Computer Science” (ECS). Taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the program increased diversity in computer science classes by teaching in a different, more engaging way. Schools with this course now had more than 40 percent female participation in their computer science classes. Hu adapted the course from a full-year to a half-year and removed a few units that increased the expense, such as work with robotics and mobile devices. She also tweaked it to meet the same requirements of the statewide computer class, but instead of simply learning how to use Microsoft Office, the students would use those applications in the context of the computer science curriculum. For example, the student might create a Power Point presentation on a topic learned in class.

West_Dr. Helen HuIn January 2013, Hu received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to bring the modified ECS class to Utah schools that serve grades nine to 12, of which there are approximately 200 in the state. (In some cases, Hu works with junior high schools that have ninth grades.) Two schools piloted the program even before the grant was secured, and now 50 schools offer the course. Hu anticipates adding another 50 schools in the next year. In the three-unit course, students learn about what a computer is and how we use them, work through problem solving on paper and then write computer programs in Scratch. Developed by MIT, Scratch is a free, online software featuring drag-and-drop programming. Hu refers to the class as “low floor, high ceiling,” meaning that all students can achieve something, but there is flexibility to challenge advanced students.

Teaching the Teachers

POGILHu has found success in changing the way computer science is taught. ECS instruction is approached in an inquiry-based way, and Hu uses the POGIL – Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning – method of teaching in her classes at Westminster. Before adopting POGIL, there was a 75 percent pass rate, both for males and females, in her classes. With POGIL, the female pass rate has gone up to 86 percent. Hu believes that POGIL’s emphasis on working in small groups and learning through self-discovery can help students overcome feelings of inadequacy and insecurity among peers while offering a confidence boost that one’s learning is on par with others.

Professional development that mimics ECS’s teaching approach is a key component to the program’s success. Working with Gail Chapman, director of national outreach at the ECS program at UCLA, Hu offers a five-day summer institute for those who will teach ECS at their schools. Chapman taught Utah’s first summer institute, but Hu took more of a lead this past year. Hu eventually plans to have high school teachers instruct the incoming teachers.

Creating Computing Communities

aaculogosquared_7_0With a three-year AAC&U/TIDES grant, Hu also will address diversity in college-level STEM courses. By the grant’s completion Westminster will offer three first-year learning communities that get college freshmen excited about the versatility of technology. Hu created a computer science course that emphasizes the creativity of computer science. This spring, the course will be combined with biology (as a liberal education requirement; not for science majors) in the first learning community. After that, the course will be combined with general chemistry for a second learning community. The third learning community will combine the course with sociology.

Growing up, Hu knew that she was interested in a STEM field. She persevered even though she was always in the gender minority, whether taking high school computer science classes in New Jersey or pursuing computer science degrees at Princeton University and the University of Utah. As she teaches the future generations of computer science professionals, Hu hopes that she won’t be in the minority for too much longer.

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