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,"
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
"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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