The Black and the Gold: Computer Science Courses at Harvey Mudd College

I just read a very interesting piece in The New York Times about Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College. Dr. Klawe and her colleagues have been trying to increase the number of female college students majoring in Computer Science – currently only 18% of CS undergrads are women. Here’s one of their initiatives:

In 2005, the year before Dr. Klawe arrived, a group of faculty members embarked on a full makeover of the introductory computer science course, a requirement at Mudd.

Known as CS 5, the course focused on hard-core programming, appealing to a particular kind of student — young men, already seasoned programmers, who dominated the class. This only reinforced the women’s sense that computer science was for geeky know-it-alls.

“Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with,” said Zachary Dodds, a computer scientist at Mudd. “We realized we were helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course.”

To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two sections — “gold,” for those with no prior experience, and “black” for everyone else. Java, a notoriously opaque programming language, was replaced by a more accessible language called Python. And the focus of the course changed to computational approaches to solving problems across science.

“We realized that we needed to show students computer science is not all about programming,” said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, chairman of the department. “It has intellectual depth and connections to other disciplines.”

I really like the idea of having “black” classes for advanced students and “gold” classes for beginners, as a way of encouraging more women to go into computer science. (Plus calling it gold makes it sound better!) When I studied CS in college, I was intimidated not by the fact that the vast majority of my classmates were male, but that they had way more experience than I did. I had never even coded a “Hello world” program before, while they had been playing around with programming languages and taking computers apart since they were kids, or at least since high school. It was a huge challenge to keep up with them.

However, I also felt that my intro CS classes were much more accessible than my advanced classes, which catered even more to seasoned – and mostly male – programmers. I don’t think it would be enough to offer separate intro classes for experienced and novice students, and then throw them all together the next semester. I wonder if and how this extra support for inexperienced CS students could be continued after the intro level. I, for one, wanted a much greater variety of CS courses than were offered at Columbia. In my view, there were too many theory courses and not enough practical ones. There also weren’t enough courses that showed different ways technology could be used in society. How do you think women should be encouraged to go into computer science?

Also of interest – Ivy League acceptance rates hit an all time low this year. At Harvard, for example, it’s only 5.9%! I have two things to say about this: (1) The rise of electronic applications means that more under-qualified applicants have been applying to top schools, potentially skewing the results. (2) There are plenty of good schools out there, so don’t stress if you can’t go to an Ivy League. You’ll do fine as long as you choose a school that values education, lets you pursue your interests, and fits your budget. Good luck to all of those heading off to college next year!

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