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.