Friday, October 3, 2008

GHC: Recruiting High School Women Into Computer Science

In this birds-of-a-feather session, four panelists very briefly discussed the programs they are working with to outreach to high school girls and encourage their participation in computer science. After this, the audience participated by discussing their ideas and concerns on the topic.

To open the session, a list of possible reasons for declining female enrolment was once again provided. The usual points were made with a few new ones. For instance, the influence of girls' parents and the differences in spatial ability were suggested as potential problems.

Two of the programs stood out to me as being rather unique. The first was a summer camp type of program that targeted disadvantaged Hispanic students, and actually paid them a stipend to come, since doing so would mean not being able to have a summer job. The second was a mother-daughter program that had girls' mothers participate with their daughters. It emphasized realistic goal-setting and sought to build self-esteem. The mother-daughter idea is really compelling, and our Women in Science and Engineering group might use this idea for a high-school conference we've been thinking about doing.

A third panelist mentioned that outreach programs can easily run into sustainability issues including funding, energy, interest, critical mass of faculty involved, and the question of whether to target only females. One interesting idea was to tie outreach activities to academic coursework of computer science majors, where participating helped you earn credit. I think this is a really good idea and might even work for Carleton University's School of Computer Science (my school), as they really want to attract females as both students and faculty.

The discussion part of the session brought up some of the usual points as well as some new ones I hadn't heard before. Here's a list of some of the ideas I managed to write down:
  • Why can't outreach be considered a recruiting tool and thus get funding accordingly? One problem here is that it wasn't long ago that there were more than enough CS majors, even if they weren't female, so it was hard to make the recruitment argument.
  • Can the courses be sold as reasoning instead of computational thinking? Unfortunately, everyone has a different idea of what reasoning is...
  • Do these outreach programs interface with groups like the Girls Scouts? It didn't sound like it, but everyone thought it would be a good idea, especially for sustainability.
  • Schools should make it easier to do a double major with computer science (with more courses counting toward both) so girls can connect computer science with other areas.
  • A noted issue is that girls might get excited by the outreach programs but then have no high school courses in the subject. They may end being behind when they go to college and lose the confidence to try it there.
  • One way that one program helps dispel the geek image is allowing the girls to invite friends to monthly meet-ups that happen for a year after the summer camp.
  • "If everyone in this room was a mentor to one person, what a world of difference it would make!"
I hope to take some of the more unique ideas heard at this session and put them to use in our own endeavours. I hope that the rest of the crowd feels they can do the same.


Diwant Vaidya said...

I was actually an ambassador for University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign's ChicTech Outreach which is also to encourage high school women to consider a computer science major. The presentation we give is quite good and well targeted, but I think best part of the outreach is the competition we host. Every year teams of women will compete in using computer science to solve a community problem. In the middle of spring semester the following year the teams are invited to meet at the UIUC campus and experience the number of other females considering CS as their major. Of course, with awards and pizza to boot!

Gail Carmichael said...

Sounds great, Diwant! We may like to host a competition at some point as well. It seems to be a very popular technique.

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