Contextualizing Computer Science Education

I’m a little behind on my weekly post for my Gender and Computing class. This week’s topic was “Environmental and educational factors. Experiences of females and males in and out of computer science programs.”

One paper we read evaluated at an initiative by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim to increase the number of women enrolled in computer science programs that began in 1997. But, it’s not that particular study that struck me about this paper. Rather, I found a point in the author’s background research and interpretation of that research intriguing.

The author listed four ways to get more women to study computer science that she extrapolated from the results of many research studies. One of those ways is “Changing the Gendered Image of Computer Science”. One study which helped the formation of this method was conducted in 1998, and the authors stated that:

…changing the professional localization of computer courses, from being associated with technical and mathematical subjects to becoming broader and based on social subjects and arts, will increase the proportion of women studying computer science. This assumption is based on the observation that there are more women in computer science programmes that are situated in facilities other than mathematics and science [1].

This was one of those that “made me go hmmmmm….” I started thinking about IU. Here, there are four different technology-based programs: Computer Science (CS), Informatics (INFO), Library Information Science (SLIS), and Instructional Systems Technology (IST). (Don’t get me started on why there are 4 different programs that focus on almost the same thing…..)

I do not know much about IST, so I will not say anything about that. But, I do know that SLIS has more women than men in the program. CS has more men than women, and INFO is pretty even (I think…not positive, but I am an INFO student, and I know I see a lot of both men and women around the buildings and in my classes). So, that seems to confirm what the 1998 study was assuming–it’s the whole “Computer Science” label that puts women off. But, when it’s not labeled “CS”, they don’t seem to have a problem studying technology.

Another study mentioned was published in 1999 and proposed including “humanistic and socially oriented features within courses, as well as a greater emphasis on communication skills and technology assessment, and history of science and technology.” [1]

When I read that part, I thought, “Exactly!” From my own personal perspective and experience, this makes sense. I am able to comprehend something much more easily if I understand how it fits into the big picture and how it is used in the real world. Here’s an example:

When I was in third grade, we began to learn fractions. I really struggled with this concept in class, and I failed my first test. Whenever we failed a test, we had to take it home and have our parent(s) sign it. I was so ashamed at failing that when I handed the test to my mom with that big fat red “F” at the top, I was crying. She asked me what happened, and I told her that I had tried, I really did. I just didn’t understand how fractions worked. So, she took me into the kitchen and got out all of her measuring cups and some recipes. Then, she had me practice measuring out different items. Then, she had me half the amounts. In just one hour of me measuring flour and water, I learned more about fractions than I ever did in two weeks of classroom instruction. I think for me it was the real-world application and visual examples that helped me to “get it”.

So, I think that we need to take the focus off the words “Computer Science” and provide context for why things are done in technology field. For example, instead of making an ability to write in C++ an end goal, give students projects in which knowledge of C++ will help them achieve their end goal.

[1] Lagesen, V. A. (2007). The strength of numbers: Strategies to include women in computer science. Social Studies of Science, 37(1), 67-92.


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