Researchers Aim to Attract and Keep Women and Minority Students in Computer Science

November 17, 2008

November 17, 2008 — James Cohoon's section of Introduction to Computer Science is just a little out of the ordinary.

Rather than focusing on typical applications, such as accounting software or computer games, the University of Virginia computer science professor uses examples and assigns exercises that appeal to students with a broad range of interests.

For those interested in a biomedicine major, there are problems related to the Human Genome Project. Others develop interests in computing as they create programs related to personality typing or instant messaging or photo manipulation.

In addition to developing student’s knowledge and skill, the course is designed to also develop students' interest in computing, particularly students who have never been exposed to programming or computer science. Part of a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant, the class is also designed to attract individuals into the field of computer science who might not otherwise consider it: women, African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, for example.

"Computer science enrollment numbers are plummeting nationally," Cohoon said. "At the same time, three of the top five fastest-growing jobs that require a college education involve computing majors. There is a great need for skilled people in these fields."

Another activity funded by the grant is a summer workshop for high school teachers to help them lay the groundwork for student interest in computing as a career. Computer science graduate students and faculty also are reaching out to area high school students to spread enthusiasm for the work they do.

Mentoring, too, is a major means for attracting women and minorities to computing, according to Mary Lou Soffa, who chairs  the Computer Science Department at U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science and is a co-investigator in the project.

"Mentoring is really one of the most important activities to influence young people," said Soffa, winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

Engineering professor and sociologist Joanne McGrath Cohoon, also a co-investigator on the grant, agrees that mentoring is effective in retaining students in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — major.

"But it's not common for faculty to mentor undergraduates," she said. "The research I've done shows that when faculty members mentor undergrads, particularly because they want to promote diversity in their field, there is a measurable positive impact on retention."

Mentoring primarily involves building relationships — serving as a role model, offering advice and informing individual students of opportunities particularly suited to their talents and interests.

"You're making yourself available to students," James Cohoon explained. "You're interacting with them. You're not just passively letting them come to you. You're trying to keep the relationship going."

Cohoon's Intro to Computer Science classes have demonstrated success over the last two years. Women and minority students from his sections are more likely to choose computing majors than are their counterparts in traditional sections of this introductory course. Soffa, too, has been highly successful at mentoring women in computing majors.

Based on past outcomes, the trio of researchers expects that at the end of the three-year grant period, their independent evaluator will have further evidence to confirm the benefits of intervention — namely, that focusing on the needs and interests of women and underrepresented minority students, both in the classroom and out, can significantly increase their numbers in computer science and engineering fields.

— By Linda Kobert