Doing it Right: Harvey Mudd’s Gender-balanced CS Program

by Jen Lindner

What is Harvey Mudd doing so right, you ask? Well, we’ll tell you:

Since 2006, the percentage of female computer science majors has more than tripled, to about 40 percent.

This is because of revolutionary changes in the program designed to build confidence during the early stages of learning. Intro to CS, a requirement for all incoming students, is now broken into three sections – one for total beginners, one for those with some programming experience and one geared toward biology. This “minimizes mistaking familiarity for aptitude and the negative impact that mix-up has on inexperienced students’ confidence.” Assignments are aligned with students’ existing interests to illustrate and enhance the fun of programming. A research project is now offered much earlier, to sophomores — giving them exposure to mentors and the value to be gained by applying even basic skills in real-world CS problems. And a trip to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is offered, introducing women students to the vibrant community of professional women Computer Scientists. All of these things provide a broader experience of the field, and promote students’ belief in their abilities through their own experiences — something women are less likely to have because of cultural barriers to gaining it.

This is an interview with Christine Alvarado, one of the professors who has engaged in this ground-breaking new program.

How long you’ve been teaching? Have you taught at other institutions besides Harvey Mudd?

I got my undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and my graduate degrees (MS and PhD) from MIT. I joined the HMC faculty in 2005. I actively taught for 6 years, and now I’m on sabbatical at Georgia Tech. Next fall I’ll be leaving HMC for a tenured teaching faculty position at UCSD. All of these positions have been in computer science (and all of my degrees are in CS as well).

What has your experience been like with the new curriculum and techniques?

My experience has been very positive. Of course, any time you completely change a course (in this case the first course in computer science) it’s difficult at first, but this change was actually easier than major changes to other courses, probably because of the fact that we had so many people working on the new course.

Was the transition difficult or smooth?

Perhaps surprisingly, it was quite smooth. One reason is probably that we were all really excited about the new course. Another was that I think that almost immediately the students really liked it. It’s always easier to make a transition when both the faculty and the students are behind it.

How has the change impacted the department socially and culturally?

This is more at the college-wide level, but I think there’s a much more positive attitude toward computer science now that we have this new version of CS5 (the first CS course). Prior to the change, CS5 was something that many students just survived (though many students also loved it). Now, almost every student at least appreciates the class, and many more love it, even if they do not go on to become computer science majors.

Within the department we have a much more diversity in the students who choose to major in CS. For one, almost 40% of our majors are women (previously it was around 12%). But more than that, we have many more students who had never considered studying computer science, so there’s sort of a “fresher” attitude toward CS that contrasts with the students who have been doing CS for years before college. Neither culture/attitude is better, it’s just that now there’s more perspectives within the major.

Do you see men and women relating differently? Is it more comfortable for women? For men as well as women?

I think that there is a general difference (which of course doesn’t hold for every male or ever female), but I think this difference has more to do with their experience before coming to college. I think the major is much more accepting now of students of either gender who are newer to the discipline. Students who come in with less experience (who tend to be women more often than men)
approach the discipline with a little more trepidation, but also more fresh excitement. I think that these students don’t feel as isolated in their views as they once did.

Would you say students’ relationships to their machines are changing because of the emphasis on personally relevant projects and fun?

I’m not really sure here. I know that they have fun within the class, but I can’t say whether that changes their relationship to their computers more generally.

And lastly, of the things that are working, how would you suggest we can implement them in grassroots trainings that are often one-time or short-running endeavors?

One thing might be to help students see how broad the field of computer science really is. That it’s more than just programming, and certainly more than just programming in a specific way. There are other hard and intellectually stimulating challenges to be addressed.

Professor Christine Alvarado
Professor Christine Alvarado
Doing it Right: Harvey Mudd’s Gender-balanced CS Program