How One College Boosted Female STEM Graduates

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Tiny Harvey Mudd College quadrupled its female computer-science graduates in just six years:

Maria Klawe, a former Princeton University engineering dean who became Mudd’s president that year, supported faculty members who wanted to make intro classes in computer science more interesting for freshmen who came in with non-technical backgrounds. They shifted the course content to practical applications, such as solving games and puzzles, and away from “the inner details of computers and software,” Dr. Klawe says. “They would model the spread of a disease, or program a robot who wants to find all the green Spam in a maze,” she says. The changes “turned computer science from one of the most despised courses to the most loved course in a single year,” Dr. Klawe says.

To counter the notion that computer science is a “geeky guy thing,” the school sent 40 to 60 women students annually to the Grace Hopper conference, which celebrates women in computing and exposed them to successful women in the field.

Dr. Klawe also took on psychological obstacles. Research shows women, more than men, see having to exert a lot of effort to pass STEM classes as a sign that they don’t belong, according to a 2012 study headed by Jessi L. Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Montana State University; women who are encouraged to see working hard as normal and expected are more likely to stick with STEM. The college president tackles the topic of self-doubt in her annual address to incoming freshmen.

Students who have “imposter fears,” who feel like a phony and live in fear of being exposed, aren’t alone, she says. “Whenever you take on something challenging and there are lots of people around you who seem like they’re really good at it, it’s not uncommon to doubt yourself,” she tells them. “That doesn’t mean you don’t belong. It’s just something that happens.”

In another move to dispel self-doubters, Harvey Mudd professors split introductory classes into three groups based on students’ previous experience; those with no previous computer-science exposure are placed in a different class from those who started programming at age 5, whose expertise can be intimidating to other students.

Females now make up about 45% of the college’s computer science grads, a percentage that reflects the male-female balance on campus as a whole, and is quadruple the 2006 figure.


  1. Gwern says:

    My previous comment on the Harvey Mudd “success” may be relevant.

  2. Skeptical that standards haven’t dropped, but let’s see.

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    Coincidentally Vox Day just posted on the dumbing down of tech:

    “Programmers are being taught to be glorified power users rather than actual computer engineers.”

    “The real reason courses are being dumbed down, of course, is so that women can pass them.”

    All-Java computer science degrees, what a joke.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I remember working with some folks with “information technology” degrees — “computer science lite!” — and they were baffled by complex programming logic — like a nested if. So, this has moved into actual computer science programs?

  5. I wouldn’t be so quick to bash ‘Java-based’ programs. Those are usually intro classes, which I also took.
    But the subsequent classes were Data Structures and Algorithms which was the biggest weeder class. The median grade was a D, and all the programming was in C/C++.
    This was followed by a Programming Languages class where various functional, logical and other esoteric languages are taught.
    Then comes Software Engineering, and Operating Systems.
    This is a standard CS program at top 20% state schools, nothing special.

  6. CS-101 was C++ only and had a fair bit of actual computer science towards the end, too, though my professor was a nincompoop who had to google basic information about the vector class in lecture.

    After that it was DSA for a weeder class, just like at Contemplationist’s school. I think they made CS-101 easier because it was a requirement for all science majors (hence me), but it still sounds like it was harder than the kind of programs you guys are talking about.

    That was 2007, at a top 50 engineering/science institute.

  7. L. C. Rees says:

    Finally. Someone to write the unit tests.

  8. Aretae says:

    Degree names are no longer indicative of anything, as far as I can tell. MIS, CIS, CS, Software Engineering — some of them are good, even the MIS programs, and some of them are bad. This from a lot of hiring, and a lot of teaching of comp-sci-type grads.

    I see folks with computer-y degrees leave school having taken 2!!!! programming classes.

    Assumption: a CS-type grad cannot be expected to know anything about programming.

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