With a three-step method, Harvey Mudd College in California quadrupled its female computer science majors. The experiment started in 2006 when Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and mathematician herself, was appointed college president. That year only 10% of Harvey Mudd’s CS majors were women. The department’s professors devised a plan.Translation: a woman who couldn't hack either programming or mathematics herself despite majoring one of them came up with a program to retain the very weak students that traditional programs are specifically designed to weed out. This is great news from the college's perspective, as it can now graduate considerably more female STEM graduates.
They no longer wanted to weed out the weakest students during the first week of the semester. The new goal was to lure in female students and make sure they actually enjoyed their computer science initiation in the hopes of converting them to majors. This is what they did, in three steps.
1. Semantics count
They renamed the course previously called “Introduction to programming in Java” to “Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python.” Using words like “creative” and “problem solving” just sounded more approachable. Plus, as Klawe describes it, the coding language Python is more forgiving and practical.
As part of this first step, the professors divided the class into groups—Gold for those with no coding experience and Black, for those with some coding experience. Then they implemented Operation Eliminate the Macho Effect: guys who showed-off in class were taken aside in class and told, “You’re so passionate about the material and you’re so well prepared. I’d love to continue our conversations but let’s just do it one on one.”
Literally overnight, Harvey Mudd’s introductory CS course went from being the most despised required course to the absolute favorite, says Klawe.
The bad news, of course, is that virtually none of them will be employable, as the program has been softened and dumbed down to the point that both men and women who were capable of hacking the original one won't be prepared for post-graduation employment. But what does Maria Klawe or Harvey Mudd care? They got paid and they got their numbers up, which means they probably had a financial incentive to do so.
It would be educational to learn where these CompSci majors are in ten years. I anticipate that less than half the original 10 percent, or one-eighth of the currently inflated number, are still doing any programming.