Getting Girls to Study STEM: It's About More Than Just Making Science ‘Cool’

The president of Harvey Mudd College talks about how she quadrupled the number of female computer science majors at her school. 

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College.

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College.

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Today, technical fields of study -- and the workplaces they feed into -- are attracting and retaining more white males than other candidates in the U.S. Looking back to 1984, women represented 37 percent of all computer science graduates, and today, that number is 12 percent. Both of these trends are bad for women and minorities, who are at risk of being left out of the best opportunities, and bad for our economy as a whole. It’s well-documented that diversity of thinking breeds creativity, which we sorely need during this time of change. Understanding these trends is challenging and something LinkedIn is tackling in part through the Economic Graph, a digital mapping of the global economy.

[MORE ON STEM: U.S. News STEM Solutions]

Issues connected to STEM education resonate deeply for Deep Nishar, the head of products and user experience at LinkedIn. As both an Indian-American whose technical background helped him make the leap from Mumbai to Silicon Valley, and as the father of two teenage girls who will soon be off to college, Nishar is a passionate advocate for STEM and has personally experienced the economic empowerment that technical fluency has afforded many. After recently learning about some of the great strides being made in STEM at the university level, Nishar had the pleasure of asking Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, a few questions to hear more about the challenges and solutions she’s implemented. Klawe has bucked this trend with her work and recently led an impressive effort to increase female computer science majors at her school to 40 percent, up from 10 percent.

Deep Nishar: How do we encourage interest in science and technology among daughters of people who are not in technical fields themselves? Do you think it's a matter of making science "cool" for girls, or is there something else at play?

Maria Klawe: The answer differs depending on the area of science and technology. Young women are already very interested in biology and chemistry. More than half of biology and chemistry majors are female and that has been true for at least 20 years. Similarly, about 45 percent of math and statistics majors are female. We need to focus our attention on the areas like computer science (CS) and electrical engineering (EE) where there are very few females (10 percent to 15 percent of majors) and there is a high demand for more graduates.

DN: Why do you think girls have shied away from these STEM specialties?

MK: Research shows that teenage girls think that disciplines involving programming and hardware like CS and EE are boring, that they won’t do well in these courses, and the majors are mostly geeky guys with no social life. As a society we encourage our young people to study what they love and what they are good at, so it’s not surprising that girls are not interested in enrolling in these majors. Moreover, in many cases when a female student does enroll in an intro course, she withdraws because she feels underprepared in comparison to some of the students (mostly geeky guys) who seem to know all kinds of arcane info about the subject.

DN: Are there any key learnings from the initiatives you’ve implemented at Harvey Mudd that you think could and/or should be applied by technology companies or other universities to encourage the continued adoption and success of women in STEM fields?

MK: At Harvey Mudd we’ve focused on changing four things about learning CS: make it fun, make it relevant, make it not scary and make it clear that lots of kinds of people have careers involving CS. We changed the context of the intro course to “creative problem-solving in science and engineering using computational approaches with Python” instead of “learn to program in Java” and made sure that the homework assignments were a lot of fun. We did not reduce the level of rigor or challenge, and we increased the amount of programming.

We reduced the “scary factor” by separating our first year students into three sections: CS 5 gold for students with little or no programming experience, CS 5 black for students with a fair amount of programming experience, and CS 42 for students with a lot of experience (CS 42 covers the first two courses in the sequence, 5 and 60). Our instructors had private conversations with students who were using up a disproportionate amount of air time in class talking about arcane details and asked them to have those conversations with the instructors in private because other students found their level of knowledge intimidating.

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