By Pati Ruiz
Let me start this post with some facts about women in computer science (CS):
As a high school CS teacher at an all-girls school, I always want to learn more about what I can do to encourage my students’ continued participation in CS. While I know that not all of the young women I teach will want to pursue CS, some will and some who might not have considered it might decide to with the right information and support.
I have always suspected that teachers play a critical role in supporting a student's’ persistence in CS. In compiling articles for my dissertation, I found studies that document the factors that play a role in CS participation. In this post, I share some of what what I have learned and what it means for me as an educator.
Wang, Hong, Ravitz, and Ivory (2015) found that young women tend to decide to pursue a STEM-related field, including CS, long before they begin college. Some studies document CS gender differences as early as grade 5. Indeed, once a girl enters college, CS degree and class requirements can be overwhelming to female undergraduates because they more often start college having taken fewer classes than the male students. In addition, girls are often interested in more than “just programming computers;” young women tend to be interested in creating computing tools to help society. It is important to show girls that CS is a field with diverse applications and a broad potential for positive societal impacts because of the value that women place on making positive contributions to society.
There are four factors that influence a young woman to pursue computer science: social encouragement, career perceptions, academic exposure, and self-perception. The good news is that Wang et al. (2015) conclude that the factors playing a role in a young woman’s decision to pursue a CS-related degree in college are largely controllable. This means that K-12 educators, family members, and friends can play a significant positive role in encouraging and exposing young women to pursue CS.
Exposure is important. Students who took one CS class were more likely to want to pursue CS. When it comes to gender, Wang and Moghadam (2017) found that while there is no difference in access to computers or CS learning opportunities for young women and men, there is less awareness of opportunities. Girls are less likely to know about clubs, online sites, or other opportunities outside of school to learn CS. Boys are more likely than girls to learn CS on their own, in a group or club, and online. More boys than girls are encouraged by being told they are “good at” CS (44% of boys versus 12% of girls were encouraged by a teacher and 43% of boys versus 17% of girls were encouraged by a parent).
This means that educators and people in the lives of young women play a large role in providing opportunities for them to learn about the CS field and then encourage these young women to pursue it. So, what can we do? As an Intro to CS teacher, I will continue to work to make (extra) sure I create supportive learning environments as I share the field of CS and tell them that they can be “good at CS.” I will also encourage them if they don’t feel that they “are good at it;” there is no reason they can’t be good if they work hard (ala Dweck’s growth mindset and Duckworth’s grit).
Since a young woman’s family plays a large role in whether they will pursue CS or not, I know I need to create opportunities to reach out to my student’s parents to help them understand why and how they might encourage their daughter to enter and persist in computer science and related fields. I will also continue to encourage their participation in CS. It is also important for students to have peer support - I can encourage students to support one another through on and off-campus clubs and activities.
In many ways, what I already do is similar to what I learned I should do. I learned that I should go out of my way to bring in guest speakers (young women in particular) to talk with my students about the opportunities available to them if they decide to pursue CS. It is important to me that my students understand that solving problems with people who have different information, opinions, and perspectives is beneficial for all. It’s also great when they get to hear about the impact and the fun the young women have in the field. By encouraging my students to explore the various areas within CS and exposing them to practitioners in the field, I hope that more of the young women I teach will consider pursuing a career in computer science.
I also learned about curriculum and pedagogical approaches, too, but I’ll discuss those in a another blog post. I am just starting my dissertation study that will examine factors that might encourage or discourage the participation of more women in undergraduate CS programs. I am interested in what types of learning experiences encourage or discourage participation by a diverse group of students in undergraduate computer science departments. The work by Wang, Hong, Ravitz, and Ivory (2015), Wang, Hong, Ravitz, and Modhadam (2016), and Wang and Modhadam (2017) has been helpful in guiding my research. More importantly it has helped me better understand my role as a CS educator.
National Science Foundation. (2012). Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/c0/c0i.htm
National Center for Education Statistics (2012). Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_318.asp
Wang, J., & Moghadam, S. H. (2017). Diversity Barriers in K–12 Computer Science Education: Structural and Social. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 3–8). http://doi.org/10.1145/3017680.3017734
Wang, J., Hong, H., Ravitz, J., & Moghadam, S. H. (2016). Landscape of K-12 Computer science education in the U.S.: Perceptions, access, and barriers. In Proceedings of the 47th ACM Technical Symposium on Computing Science Education, (pp. 645–650). http://doi.org/10.1145/2839509.2844628
Wang, J., Hong, H., Ravitz, J., & Ivory, M. (2015). Gender differences in factors influencing pursuit of computer science and related fields. In Proceedings of the 2015 ACM Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education - ITiCSE ’15, (pp. 117–122). http://doi.org/10.1145/2729094.2742611