UCSC’s computer science program begins outreach to draw more female students
Women have been attending colleges since the late 1800s, according to the National Women’s History Museum, but their numbers were not equal to those of men until the 1980s. Currently at UC Santa Cruz, women make up 53 percent of the undergraduate population and 42 percent of the faculty. However, this is not always reflected within the individual majors— especially the computer science major, which has, historically, been disproportionately male.
In the 2010-2011 school year, women made up 11 percent of the computer science department, which contains both computer science and the computer game design majors. Women make up just 14 percent of the entire Jack Baskin School of Engineering. Compare this to women accounting for 55 percent of the humanities and 51 percent of the physical and biological science departments, and one begins to see a deeper issue.
Baskin Engineering, however, is trying to change that. At the beginning this school year, it launched Project Awesome, a program that aims to address this gender gap by reaching out and connecting with current and prospective female students.
Adrienne Harrell, director of Undergraduate Student Affairs and part of the Project Awesome team, believes that the initiative can empower participants and inspire them to attain a range of technological skills that can be used in a variety of workforces.
“Technology is touching every aspect of our lives and we want to make sure that women know that even if they don’t have previous computing experience, we have courses that allow students with no programming experience to be able to come in and build those skills,” Harrell says.
Beyond that, Harrell says Project Awesome has the ability to change the culture of the computer major—one that has long been considered to be male dominated.
“Most importantly, [we want to] promote the fact that there is not only a place for women in computing, but, at UCSC, there are a number of individuals who are committed to really looking at our culture here and doing everything that we can to make sure that female students feel comfortable and supported in the School of Engineering and our majors,” she says.
Baskin Engineering recently reported that the number of women majoring in computer science has risen 40 percent over the past two years. Harrell recalls that while there were 40 women declared as computer science majors in the winter quarter of 2009, this year that number is 63. She attributes this increase to a number of reasons.
“One is the natural phenomenon that our overall numbers are growing in our programs, and another is that we have made a concerted effort to reach out to high school girls and young women to talk to them about our opportunities,” says Harrell.
Carolynn Jimenez is one of those 63 female students. Majoring in both computer science and linguistics, Jimenez was drawn to the computer science program because of its ability to be malleable and easily connected with other majors.
“I think there’s a lot of overlap between computer science and linguistics,” Jimenez says. “The beautiful thing about computer science is that it’s so interdisciplinary. You can do computer science and astrophysics or computer science and film—it really just gives you an edge in any industry.”
Jimenez recently attended a Project Awesome dinner at which faculty and guest speakers spoke to attendees about the importance of female participation within computer science and its implications. Jimenez remembers “having a really good time” and feeling like she could do “a lot with the degree” that she is earning. But above all, she says the dinner also gave her hope: the speakers and faculty addressed problems and misconceptions that can prevent girls from pursuing a degree in computer science.
“One of the things we talked about was how hard it is to get girls interested in computer science because they think that it’s a classroom full of nerdy, smelly boys—which is a popular misconception about the classes,” says Jimenez.
Jimenez says it isn’t always easy being among the only females in her classes (“Like this morning [when] I was in my section for a computer engineering class, and the only other woman in the room was the teaching assistant,” she says), but that Project Awesome gives her a sense of “hope for women in the next generation.”
Jimenez, who is also a member of The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), says that she can count, on one hand, how many girls are in her two computer engineering classes, and can name each of them, “because there are just so few.”
Computer science professor Marilynn Walker graduated from UCSC in 1984 and recalls the boom of students within the computer science programs that erupted due to computer innovations at the time.
“In 1984 to 1985 the participation of women in undergraduate computer science degrees was at its max,” says Walker. “That’s when it hit the peak.”
Walker says she first began to notice a growing gender gap in the field during her first term teaching at the University of Sheffield in England. She was teaching an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class that had about 80 students total—two of which were female.
”I thought ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going on? Why aren’t there any women?’” says Walker, who now teaches at UCSC.
Jimenez believes this is because girls are dissuaded from pursuing studies within math or science.
“Girls, in high school, shy away from math and science,” she says. “I guess the problem is … really with our culture and how we raise girls to think that they can’t be good at math or science. A key component of that is reaching out to girls sooner than at the university level.”
Harrell hopes that Project Awesome can do just this by working alongside likeminded organizations within the surrounding community. In addition to visiting local high schools to do outreach, Project Awesome helped bring the national Aspiration Award, which recognizes young women who have aspirations in computing, to the Bay Area. Harrell also cites the Girls in Engineering program, which is geared toward middle school girls in Santa Cruz and the Monterey counties, along with the National Science Foundation scholarship program, which targets educationally disadvantaged students, as ways in which Project Awesome and Baskin Engineering are trying to change the cultural climate.
“What’s changed for us here is we are being intentional about what we want to have happen,” says Harrell. “We’ve always wanted to see an increase but now we’re taking some concrete steps to try a variety of initiatives to make that happen.”
Harrell believes that Project Awesome can be used by anyone looking into the computer science major—not just women. She feels the group’s efforts to educate and reach out to the community will also provide a way for participants to create change and take steps to enrich their college and post-college lives.
“[We believe] this is a good thing to do, not just from a numbers perspective, but because it’s creating important opportunities for students as they leave here, and ways in which they can contribute to the society at large, and I think that’s something that a lot of students at UCSC, whatever major they’re in, are interested in doing,” she says.