Programs try to lure, retain women

HEATHER LaROI
hlaroi@madison.com
608-252-6143
March 29, 2007

Susan Horwitz, associate chairwoman of UW-Madison's computer science department, is bothered that women earn 10 percent or less of the bachelor's degrees given out in computer science.

"All these women out there are losing out on what is a wonderful opportunity because I think being in computer science is a chance to be creative and use your communication skills and people skills and interact and do all kinds of great things," she said.

In a bid to attract and retain more women in the field, Horwitz has created a novel freshman-level program at UW-Madison called Wisconsin Emerging Scholars in Computer Science (WES-CS).

The program, which has National Science Foundation backing, combines two strategies: direct recruitment of new freshmen and parallel team-learning techniques, or what amounts to peer study groups.

Last fall, the program added a "Digital Divide" course that students take simultaneously with the introductory programming course. The class examines the impacts of technology on different societal groups and includes a group community service project.

Along the way, they're also tackling some of the stereotypes that surveys indicate are deterring students, particularly women, from continuing in the field. Common misperceptions include the notion that computer scientists sit in front of a computer all day or that computer scientists build relationships with machines, not people.

To dispel such images, WES-CS has invited local people with computer science jobs to come in and talk about their average work day.

Students learned these people "were not socially inept and boring and also that they are very much working with people," Horwitz said. "It definitely does help retention."

UW-Madison has also added a computer science certificate program, or what amounts to an undergraduate minor.

"Even if they don't major in computer science, maybe they'll take more courses and get more experience," Horwitz said.

She said the university is also considering luring students to the field by adding different types of entry-level courses such as the popular new programming language called Alice (from "Alice in Wonderland") that allows students to create animations.

"It's a way to attract more students who maybe want to get a little taste for computing but are put off by the regular intro course," Horwitz said.

Women who feel uncomfortable or out-of-place are less likely to stick around, and that's something Madison Area Technical College's information technology program is tackling by creating a women's IT support group.

"We're trying to get (female students) a social connection and remove the fear factor," said MATC IT instructor Nina Milbauer, who says she regularly faces classrooms that have only a handful of women.

"The guys tend to already have their social groups, the people they hang out with or do projects with. But because there's so few women, they don't have the opportunity to make the same kind of connections. We're trying to find a place to do that, where they can find other women to study with and see other women that are already succeeding in the area."

The feedback on the group has been very positive, Milbauer said.

Another very important part of MATC's retention strategy is to set up female students with professional mentors.

"So far, every single student paired up with a mentor has stayed in the IT field," Milbauer said.

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