When Carla Brodley became dean for Northeastern University’s College of Computer and Information Science in 2014, she set a lofty goal for the school: Reach 50/50 female/male computer science enrollment by 2021.
“It’s the fastest growing field in the country, and we shouldn’t have half the population sitting out of it economically,” Brodley said. “We need to create programs that make it so women want to try computer science. They tend to like it in the same proportion as men–they just don’t try it in the same proportion.”
Brodley knows from experience: She started her own college journey as an English major, and discovered a love for computer science three semesters in after trying an introductory course. At that time, the demographics were better: The number of women in computer science was around 30%, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). “I didn’t feel like a minority the way a lot of women today feel,” Brodley said.
Currently, women represent only about 16% of computer science graduates across the US.
Why the dramatic drop? “As it became more popular and was portrayed in the media, it was portrayed as something men would like and women wouldn’t,” Brodley said. “In TV shows, once in awhile you would see a female computer scientist, who was usually misportrayed, as were the men, to the point where people think you have to be socially awkward and in a dark basement gaming to be someone who likes computer science.”
But Northeastern’s program is on its way: Female enrollment is now at 26%–up from 19% in 2014.
Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA took on a similar goal and found success: The percentage of female computer science majors grew from less than 15% in 2006 to 55% in 2016, thanks to the efforts of President Maria Klawe.
Attracting new CS candidates
Brodley’s approach involves showing both potential applicants and students already enrolled at Northeastern how computer science knowledge is worthwhile in any field of study.
The university expanded its combined majors program to include more than 20 majors that pair computer science with subjects including business administration, English, biology, and more. “It fits together with another academic unit, and we figure out what are the important things to take from both to make someone have expertise in both in a way that makes sense,” Brodley said.
More than half of the 1,200 students in Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science are enrolled in combined majors, and there is more demographic diversity in those combined majors than in the computer science major alone, Brodley said.
Northeastern created a minor in computer science, in which every student takes the same two introductory courses to learn coding and computational thinking. After that, the courses vary depending on the student’s major. A biology major might take a class in computational algorithms in biology, while a design major might take web design and data visualization.
“The goal is for 50/50 female/male majors, but the other goal is that every student should know some computer science before they leave the education system,” Brodley said. “Until we fix that at the high school level, we need to fix it at the college level.”
Brodley and her staff revamped the “Fundamentals of Computer Science” introductory course. It now teaches students a coding language that the faculty designed, so no one has an advantage, even if they took computer science in high school.
The school created a regular section of this intro course and an accelerated section, and allowed students to self-select the one they want to take. “It takes out of the regular classroom the kids who like to show off that they know more, which is intimidating to those who haven’t had it before,” Brodley said. “It changed the atmosphere in regular classes–people feel free to ask questions.”
Northeastern also offers two CS master’s programs intended to draw a diverse crowd: One for people with an undergraduate CS degree, and another for those who studied something else. Those students do a two-semester post-baccalaureate degree before entering the program. The retention rate is about 93%. And students who came from backgrounds in English, chemistry, economics, and history went on to jobs at Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon, Brodley said.
To recruit more women and minorities to your CS programs, Brodley recommends looking within the pool of students already at your university, and see if you can attract those who didn’t think they would do computer science into trying it.
“The real issue is underrepresented populations are not trying CS because they decide ahead of time they won’t like it,” Brodley said. “Our program is designed to get people to try it.”