[Note: This is a long, 6,000-word post. It could not have been written without my students Alexis, Cal, Chloe, Georgina, Laura, Leah, and Sarah.]
A while back when I was just starting the job search, I wrote a blog post about why I decided to keep most of my social media public. I wrote:
I believe [developing students into someone who enjoys, and is still continually, learning] requires exposure to an atmosphere, a culture of learning. This means that students need to feel the energy of people excited about things, to have conversations with people only tangentially related to any course topic, to ponder questions where not only the answer, but also the path to that answer, is unknown.
I want to keep my tweets and my blog posts online and public, because I think it is part of the culture of education. […] The very fact that I spend time writing short essays for my blog is evidence that I spent personal time on (somewhat) academic pursuits. While I wouldn’t consider these things an essential part of my academic persona, I do think it is a core part of who I am, as well as a part of the culture that I want students to take part in.
I wasn’t actively thinking of what I had written at the end of this past semester, but as I was brainstorming good topics for this blog, it occurred to me that my students might be interested in contributing. I knew that some of them follow me on Twitter and read my blog, and they have even occasionally brought it up in conversation. Although the initial motivation was to reduce the number of blog posts I have to write, I was quickly enthused by the opportunity to learn what my students think of broader computer science issues.
I polled students a week after exams were over and seven students volunteered to write something. (Which proves that not everything students do are for grades.) I then sent them this prompt:
Historically, computer science has failed to attract students with diverse backgrounds. In 2015 in the US, only 15.7% of computer science majors were women, which drastically under-represents the 56% of college students who are female. Although colleges have made strides in this area – Harvey Mudd being one of the national leaders – the diversity at many colleges remain abysmal. Furthermore, almost no headway has been made with regards to race, particularly for blacks/African Americans, who account for 3.5% of CS graduates (but form 10.3% of college students).
So I have two questions for you:
- Why do you think disciplinary minorities (in this case, women and students of color) shy away from computer science?
- What can we do – as a community of faculty and students – to overcome these barriers and encourage these students to try computer science?
The statistics are from the 2015 Taulbee Survey. It’s hard to say what I was hoping to learn, given that there are conferences and entire journals on these questions. I have no reason to believe that Oxy will deviate significantly from national trends and surveys of other colleges. All I can say is that, since six of the seven students were female, and at least three identify as multicultural/people of color, these seemed appropriate questions to ask.
Let me start with Laura’s story:
I can only speak for how I feel about being a woman in a computer science context so I’m only going to speak to that. My sister and I both thought that part of it comes from the confidence to tinker. Since computers and computer games have traditionally become more a part of the male social experience, men are generally more used to fussing with them, and trying a bunch of things and failing and then trying more till they get the machine to work. Generally when someone is called in to “fix” a computer or a projector or anything like that, all they really do is fiddle with things until something works. The difficult thing is having the confidence to fiddle around with things, and trust yourself enough to know you won’t break it, or really being willing to be wrong.
I, like many women, or even a lot of people in the humanities have a bit of a complex when it comes to math. Deciding I wasn’t “a math person” when I was like 7 never really left, even after completing Calc BC in high school. I came to college thinking I was going to take the next level of Calc, but then was intimidated away from it by the level of confidence and “mathiness” – I wasn’t one of those people so I just shut down.
A different student, Chloe, also wrote something similar:
I believe this path [to be a computer scientist] is “chosen” in a much different way for men and women. This is not always the case, but I believe that there is a trend in which men are encouraged to choose what they want to do with their lives, and autonomy is more readily available to them. Women, on the other hand, are not encouraged nearly as much, especially when it comes to getting their interests sorted out early in life. All my girlfriends had decided if they were going to pursue humanities or STEM in the earlier parts of high school. In other words, most of my best friends had sworn math as their enemy early on in high school.
The phrase “confidence to tinker” struck me as significant, as I never thought tinkering required confidence. Tinkering came “naturally” to me – which is the standard excuse for personality traits that we could not yet explain. It’s interesting to consider the forms that an opportunity to tinker could take, from explicitly by being given a trusted space to take things apart and put them back together, to implicitly by being exposed to other people doing so. In the latter case, exposure to the right people would presumably lead to more explicit cultivation of tinkering.
The confidence to tinker is a great case study and reminder of all the factors that affect whether people want to learn computer science. The lack of confidence is invisible to everyone but the individual, and I would not be surprised if many other cultural factors boil down to how it affects personal psychology. The idea of tinkering also frames computer science recruitment in a new light. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to explain all that technology can do – I think most people already knows that to some extent – nor to get people excited about computer science. Maybe the goal is simply to give students an opportunity to discover what computer science is, which includes building up their confidence to tinker, to explore, and to ask questions that they didn’t know they had.
Another student, Sarah, replied to the first question with a related idea:
What does computer science mean? Why do I need it? What will I learn in the class? What do I do with it afterwards (still don’t know the answer to that one)? I had no answers to these questions before I came in the class so if it wasn’t for my lab and math requirement I would probably never have learned so much about computer science. If someone’s trying to recruit more women, then they need to show women why computer science matters. Men are already taught that from birth because they play with cars and are encouraged to do science. So the effort needs to be even greater when answering the question “Why does this matter?” for women.
Meaningful applications have already been widely discussed as one factor which helps recruit women (as noted in this fact sheet/case study from NCWIT). In the context of building confidence and other invisible problems, however, the bigger issue is that students don’t know what computer science is. This platitude is often thrown around – I’ve used it as a hook during prospective student events – but I think it raises the question of how to expose students to computer science. Especially at Oxy, where the computer science program is small and has yet to hit word-of-mouth critical mass, it is important to just let students know that we offer courses and that they’re invited.
I want to dive deeper into recruitment. One suggestion from Sarah is to “rebrand the computer science department”:
CHANGE YOUR IMAGE AND ADVERTIZE, ADVERTIZE, ADVERTIZE […] most of my points are about the perception of computer science because the brand of a class, professor, or department is why students register for some classes and not others. I registered for CS because Emma [a student whose comprehensive project I advised on, and who then did research with me] had told me a lot about you before hand. I would probably have taken zoology or some other class to fulfill my lab requirement otherwise. I think that the current brand of CS at Oxy is that it’s hard, it’s 100% mathematical or sciency (whatever that means), and that there are only STEM boys who pursue it because it’s only applicable to them.
Speaking for myself, addressing the image of computer science has always caused cognitive dissonance. First, I dislike admitting that enrollment is partially due to personality and social engineering (…even as I use it to my advantage). But more importantly, the perception of computer science as difficult and mathematical is not incorrect – the computer beats us over the head for our smallest mistakes, and many concepts are abstract and unintuitive. What is missing from this perception, however, is that computer science is also fun and rewarding. Getting this across is hard – I spend half my first lecture telling stories of my misadventures in computer science, but I have no idea if it had the desired impact. Regardless, the student responses here highlights the necessity of getting that message across.
Then there are the social aspects of computer science. Sarah still:
I have not found any appealing social group or event to be a part of in the STEM community at Oxy. This has really discouraged me to study, talk, create, or whatever else with my STEM peers. Actually, Emma is the only person I’ve ever connected with when it comes to the learning of computer science. The other people who seem to be into computer science make it very difficult to be part of the “crew” so the existing community kind of alienates itself from those wishing to engage with the field. In other words, I don’t wanna hang out with 20 boys making jokes I don’t understand while trying to become engineers.
If I tried to build a specific image of a STEM social group in mind I would include the following components: diversity in its make-up, people having informal discussion about STEM AND its impact on other areas of life, having study groups outside of classes, having social events, creating a few STEM-related groups on campus. I don’t think that the current social scene of STEM at Oxy is very representative of liberal arts values and the population of Occidental. Even though I am a math major, I don’t belong to any STEM-related social group.
I don’t know what I have to say about this. Again, creating a network of social support is commonly listed as a good thing, and it’s also one of the few strategies we have discovered for retaining students of color, which computer science as a whole has yet to succeed at.
Perhaps a more personal story is warranted. Back in high school, I mostly associated with two social/school clubs. The first was forensics (as in speech and debate); the other was sysops, short for system operators. Sysops wasn’t a student group per se. Rather, it was a group of students who worked with the IT department to do various tech things, from taking pictures and videos of sports games to creating a seat reservation system for the school plays, from maintaining the school website to assigning all seven hundred students of the high school to their preferred activities for (what’s called) Challenge by Choice day. The sysops became a significant portion of my core friend group, and in general we were a nerdy bunch whose conversations often turned to STEM subjects.
I’m telling this story because there is a similar group at Oxy. Emma and some of her friend started a club that served both as a social club and as a CS outreach organization. I have attended some of the meetings and had some of the students in my classes, and it’s clear that they are friends. I have been part of the casual conversations about computer science, and I know they have collaborated on side projects before. Despite all this, their actual outreach has only attracted mediocre attendance, and maybe one person who now regularly participates in the meetings.
My point here is that it’s hard to build a community. I don’t think my high school teacher was explicitly trying to create friends; in fact, I doubt he would have succeeded if he did try. As much as I want there to be a social group, I am unsure how active a role I should take as a faculty member (and not a student), nor do I have a sense of how to successfully form such a group. My current approach is to provide opportunities for students to meet each other both in and out of class. This structure has led to some new friendships, but they are isolated and lacks the cohesion to form a larger STEM support network, nor are they in a position to draw in students who may not otherwise be interested in computer science.
Chloe brought up one more aspect of social support: individual attention and encouragement.
I really believe that the only reason I love math so much is because when I was in middle school, I was on the brink of failing my math class. I got two tutors to help me improve, and both were women. They consistently told me that my success was tied to how hard I worked, and not how intelligent I was. I spent 7 years committed to improving my work and along the way found I really enjoyed it.
I consider myself lucky, because I firmly believe that my love for science and math was supported and sustained by a select handful of excellent teachers who encouraged me to bite the bullet and commit to what I wanted. They knew I liked science because I devoted time to it, same with math. Even though I struggled, no one told me that because I struggled that I had to give up. Rather they said, if you struggle, you are actively becoming superior to your former self. It’s a rare experience in general, but even more so for girls.
I read a blog post the other day about how women’s “geek origin stories” tend to mention someone who encouraged them to continue with STEM. The author followed up with a post, commenting how there may still be a section of the population for whom one initiation may not have been sufficient. I’m recently started tracing my tech narrative to when my mom learned HTML/CSS when I was in middle school, and me learning along with her. The intended moral here is that getting students into computer science may be a matter of merely sharing our enthusiasm for computer science with them, and implicitly including them in activities around technology.
One message I’m taking away from the last three stories is that a significant portion of recruitment happens before students ever step into a formal computer science classroom. The focus is on getting students interested enough in computer science, or perhaps intrigued enough with its possibilities, so they are willing to spend a semester learning the basics. I have not devoted significant time on outreach, partially because the demands of the classes I’m teaching are always more pressing. But another reason may be that I have never been clear on the goals of outreach, since increased enrollment in computer science seems like the wrong metric. This conversation suggests that the goal is to expose them to basic computer science, encourage them to explore, and build up their confidence so they won’t dismiss computer science out of hand.
Chloe and Sarah both recalled cases of micro-aggression, which I will share without comment. Although Sarah’s incident did not occur in a computer science classroom, it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening:
During my last class of math junior colloquium, a class which includes about 20 men and about 5 women, our professor told us that a professor at Occidental was willing to mentor anyone who would like to start a math club on campus. He also said that if anyone wanted to help, they should speak up so we could start planning it. I then raised my hand, and said “I have built a couple organizations at Oxy so if someone wants some help with writing a constitution or going through the administration of setting up a club, I am here.” Right after I said that, a few men, who I have friendly relations with, laughed, came to me and said “Ooooh Sarah, you have so much experience, you built two clubs at Oxy” as if I had just bragged to the whole entire world. I was slightly offended but didn’t think more of it at first because I knew they didn’t have any bad intention saying that this way.
A couple minutes later, our math professor asked one of these men why he hadn’t registered for senior colloquium, and to that he answered out loud in front of the whole class, “Because I am doing honors” and then laughed. Nobody flinched. Nobody told him “Oooooh you’re doing honors, you’re so smart.” And that was the first time that I did truly feel that my gender mattered to my fellow math peers. When I accomplish things, it is looked at as extraordinary, and telling people out loud about it sounds braggy. But when a guy does the same, it is looked at as normal. It is not a pleasant experience to be called out for anything in front of a large group of people and if I wasn’t so extraverted and confident, I would probably not have laughed. I would have gone to the bathroom and cried, and I say that because a part did want to do that.
I cannot count the number of times people told me they thought I was an arts major, or I should be in fashion school because they think I dress well, or because I “don’t look like a math person.” I am CONSTANTLY told that I don’t look like a “math major”, a “math student”, a “math person”, someone “who does science”, or that I simply “don’t look like it”.
Chloe’s story was not from school at all:
Last week, I went to dinner with my parents and some old family friends. They had brought their son who is about my age, majoring in computer engineering and minoring in mathematics. When I heard he was coming, I was so excited. Meeting people who share my interests is always great, especially when they are my age. All of my five best friends are in political science, so to meet a STEM major is always cool. We got talking about math and I told him I was considering majoring in it and minoring in computer science. He looked increasingly confused as we spoke, but he finally commented and it wasn’t hard to understand the strange expression on his face, “You’re so pretty, I would have never pegged you for a math geek, let alone a minor in another STEM field. You don’t wear glasses and you’re blonde, good for you.”
I know he was trying to compliment me, and for the intention, I’m appreciative. I’m not trying to make the two sentences he shared with me seem like they shattered my reality in any way, but they highlight some of the main hindrances I’ve had to overcome to not only study mathematics, computer science and cognitive science, but also to speak openly about my passions. My appearance has always been tied to what my brain is capable of. Which, is inherently illogical, obviously. There are situations where this tie has been pushed onto me, via comments from others, but I’m also guilty. I have always felt a need to prove something, and find it ok when people underestimate me, only because I like to exceed their expectations, I like to show them how I break the stereotype.
There is another deeper layer that has to with my mannerisms. I’m extroverted, confident in my abilities and limits, and generally cheerful. The stereotype associated with STEM students, especially computer science, is a male who is cold, unapproachable, lacking in social skills and overly committed to his work. Something similar might be said for a student majoring in math. And while we might not verbally force, acknowledge or discuss that stereotype, it continues to thrive deep within us. And for whatever reason, perhaps because we cling to what is familiar, when that stereotype is challenged, some people cope by rejecting what doesn’t fit the stereotype. The reason that I’m bothered by what that boy said to me is because I, like all other college students, already put an immense amount of pressure on myself to pick the right major to get the right career. Being reminded that what I like, what I’m passionate about, doesn’t fit the cookie cutter makes that pressure more significant. It tests you, it makes you think about being complacent with what society want you to do, because being complacent is much easier. Furthermore, when people make you feel as though you don’t belong because of something as fundamental as your gender, it makes it harder to work at it.
The stories of two other students bring up something new, a potential problem with the way we advertise computer science. The first is from Leah:
Personally, I have not pursued computer science prior to this class because I had an idea in my head that if I were to learn how to code, there would be expectations for me to create something amazing and innovative (i.e. an iPhone app, hacking, advanced systems etc.) I had a skewed idea of what computer science entailed and had unrealistic expectations that caused me to shy away from pursuing comp. sci. before this class.
As a woman and POC, I do think that I also shied away from computer science because even if I were to enjoy computer science and be good at it, statistics show that white males dominate the technology industry and it just seemed like pursuing computer science either led to disappointment in my abilities or disappointment in the availability of future opportunities. I can’t say that my gender and ethnicity were the factors that caused me to shy away from computer science but they were things that I did consider while thinking about whether or not I wanted a future with computer science (having comp. sci. fulfill a lab science [requirement] was what really pushed me into taking this class!!).
I also think it would be helpful to publicize smaller scale computer science projects in the media. Instead of recognizing successful billion dollar phone apps and hacking scandals etc., there needs to be more publicity of small scale projects that students create so that computer science seems less complex and more like an attainable skill.
Two ideas stood out. The first is that the stereotype of computer science being dominated by white men has sufficiently permeated popular consciousness that it is influence students’ career decisions. As if the lack of diversity in computer science was not severe enough before, it is now a self-reinforcing problem. People who care about diversity are deliberately avoiding computer science because it is not heterogeneous, which leads to the field being populated only by people who don’t care about diversity, exacerbating the homogeneity.
The other idea that stood out was Leah’s over-estimation of what was required of her as a computer scientist, that she would then be expected to change the world. This is ironic firstly because, at the end of the semester, Leah decided to write a program that solved a class of equations as the final project in her Complex Analysis course. This is the college equivalent of putting equations in your calculator in high school, which might have introduced many people to programming and is mundane and not at all groundbreaking (in the best possible way). It’s safe to say that Leah no longer feels the pressure to amaze and is free to explore other applications of computer science. I cannot claim any credit, but I am glad that she broke through her previous unrealistic expectations.
Underlying this expectation, however, is the possibility that we are selling computer science too aggressively, by constantly focusing on how people have built billion-dollar companies and solved global problems. The idea that technology is over-hyped has not occurred to me before, but it does not sound implausible. Future recruitment efforts need to balance the potential impact of computer science with its other selling points, whether that’s general usefulness, constructive distraction, or problem solving training.
Georgina had a different experience of technology as a San Franciscan:
I grew up in the heart of San Francisco, in a neighborhood which has been deeply changed by the growth of large technology companies. You might assume that I was exposed to coding at a young age. You might think that I had even visited at least a couple of the infamous Silicon Valley campuses.
If you made these assumptions, you’d be wrong on both counts. Although I walked by increasingly ubiquitous techies every day, I didn’t actually know anybody who coded. I didn’t step foot on a tech giant campus until I was 22, in college, and in LA at that.
This experience is not unique to me. Despite claims of creating global connections, technology companies were (and to a large degree still are) disconnected from the communities they have planted themselves in. In high school (2007-2011), I had absolutely no interest in become one of the Googlers. I didn’t want to line up for a big white bus every morning, like an ant on my way to the big ant colony. (I do not use the word colony lightly.) It disgusted me to imagine staring at a computer all day, surrounded by people who used the words like “innovative” and “Steve Jobs” every three sentences. I didn’t want to come back every evening again in a bubble on wheels and become one of gentrifiers, one of the urban colonizers. I loved my neighborhood and my city, and I didn’t want to betray my connection to the “real” San Francisco.
At my first college, the intro to computer science was one of the largest classes. It was notoriously difficult, and also quite cultish. There was class gear, a large group of teaching assistants, and lots of clapping when the professor arrived at the first lecture. I didn’t go back after the first class. I felt like I was in bubble of blind sheep. Where was the questioning? The thoughtful discussion? Did these people not see that technology also had a dark side?
While I might agree that gentrification due to technology companies may not belong in a computer science curriculum, I do think there are other socio-technological issues that a computer science program should address. The accessibility of human-computer interfaces, for example, or the potential misuses of an app, should both be considered in any course that takes the user into account. I don’t know if these topics are commonly included in (say) a mobile development course, but this type of “application” of computer science is not one I often hear about in the discussions of recruitment.
Assuming students did not look at education literature, I was surprised by the number of suggestions that matched best practice. (Although, one might argue that of course they do, as the literature is based on exactly this kind of survey data.) I’ve already mentioned the importance of social support:
Chloe: When I learned about [Girls Who Code], I was practically squeaking I was so excited. Girls Who Code helps girls spearhead clubs in their communities that help other girls learn how to code. It is SO cool because it encourages leadership, self-advocacy and women helping women. It takes away some of the barriers, perhaps makes the learning environment more approachable, and just seems like a lot of fun. I assume this would also work for other minorities in computer science, bonding people together over a shared experience is so powerful. Having other girls in my life who struggled with me and who I had to share encouragement with are much of the reason I haven’t given up and why I still love computer science and math.
Cal: Firstly, I think some of those groups such as women in STEM are a really great resource and they help to make computer science and other STEM majors more accessible to students who might otherwise have a harder time finding a community of people with joint interests. So one thing I think would be helpful would be to expand those types of groups and use them to try and build a larger community of people who are interested in STEM at Occidental. This can help bring in students who are already interested in STEM, but haven’t considered computer science.
Students brought up the lack of role models, which is particularly problematic when a program is just starting:
Chloe: [Einstein, Feynman, and Turing] were the first three role models that came to mind, all men, but also all doubted by the world at various points in their career due to their peculiarities, peculiarities that have nothing to do with their minds. Einstein: his peculiar personality and demeanor, Feynman: his vibrant and comical nature, and Turing: his sexuality. Generally, I just don’t want the yet to be Jane Goodalls, Frances Allens, or Ada Lovelaces to lose their steam because of something that they never chose, that they were born with. Gender should be something you wear with pride, not something that raises your glass ceiling.
Alexis: As a community there needs to be more women and minorities advocating for other women and minorities to take part in computer science classes. More publicity about classes and the potential that coding allows for. Discussion to raise awareness is going to make the biggest impact on the Oxy campus – both from professors and students who have taken the class.
And finally, since most students are majors in other disciplines (with the rest undeclared), it’s not surprising that they emphasized interdisciplinary connections:
Leah: As a college community, I think we can encourage computer science by promoting inter-department work with other courses. By highlighting relationships between computer science and other courses, it gives students a curiosity that focuses not only on computer science but also on the connections between computer science and their other courses of interest. Encouraging students or making assignments that help students create connections between computer science and their other courses (ex: math, science, English etc.) would really help overcome barriers and encourage the pursuit of computer science.
Cal: This all being said, I think there’s a lot more that can be done. The thing about these groups is that they already are focused on a common interest in STEM. In my opinion, I truly think that outreach to students in other majors is the most important thing that faculty and students can do as it will introduce students to computer science who wouldn’t otherwise do so. What I think a lot of people don’t realize before they start taking a computer science course is that computer science is simply a tool that enables you to accomplish tasks that would otherwise be challenging. It’s tough to sell people on something that from the outside can look intimidating, but I think finding ways to work with other departments in order to show them how computer science could help them in a variety of different ways would be a good way to motivate all kinds of students to consider computer science. I think through doing this, the faculty will inevitable attract all kinds of students including women and Students of Color. Because computer science is a tool, the people doing the coding plays a major part in what is created. Computer science needs a diverse set of viewpoints. Plain and simple. Reaching out to students who would not have taken the class otherwise could just might give someone a voice and that is important. And the opportunity should be given to those students.
I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise, from getting students’ stories to finding the rough narrative between them. These stories may seem like anecdotes on the internet to the reader – because to you, they are. To me, however, they are the experiences that, in a different reality, might have been the straw that prevented these students from taking my class. Because they were in my class and chose to participate in this conversation, however, I learned that I should take student outreach more seriously, and that I should encourage more critical thought on the costs of the technology that computer science sells so aggressively.
More reflectively, these narratives have provided justifications for some of the things that I already do. Without trying too hard to pat myself on the back, I can now explain some of the activities that I had intuitively included in my Spring course. For example, although it was part of the course (and not in an informal setting), I explicitly left time for students to explore the Python prompt in their first lab, and also asked them to Google how to calculate exponents. These activities seemed like good ideas at the time, but only in the last few weeks did I conceptualize them as ways to build up confidence. Similarly, while I held an Hour of Code last year, it was at the suggestion of a student and even then I only thought of it as something I “should” do. If I thought of exposure, it was only at the level of meeting more students, and not explicitly with the goal of introducing computer science or dispelling stereotypes.
Ironically, for questions about diversifying computer science, what startled me the most in the students replies is how unique each story is. Although these narratives as a whole followed the themes identified in national surveys, it is humbling to see the different factors that impacted each student’s life. For this reason alone, I encourage any reader to engage their students and/or peers on their views of diversity in computer science. While the conversation may not provide ground-breaking insight into how to make computer science more inclusive, it humanizes the contributing factors in a way that mere statistics do not.
I look forward to trying this again next year with a different group of students. To Alexis, Cal, Chloe, Georgina, Laura, Leah, and Sarah: Thank you for indulging me with this exercise, and I hope to see most of you in the fall.