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Contact: Anne Watzman
(412) 268-3830

For immediate release:
backgrounder

Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science Continues to Defy Trends By Attracting and Retaining More and More Women in Its Undergraduate Program

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science (SCS) is defying the national trend when it comes to attracting and retaining women in its undergraduate program in computer science.

While the number of women enrolling in computer science programs at other institutions has been declining, the numbers enrolled in Carnegie Mellon's undergraduate program have been on the rise for the past six years. In 1995, women represented just eight percent of the 110 freshmen enrolled in the computer science program. Last year, 40 percent of the 129 entering freshmen were women, and this happened while the department was raising its admissions standards.

During this period, Carnegie Mellon also has seen its percentage of admitted women who graduate with a computer science degree improve. In 1995, seven women were admitted into the School of Computer Science. Six ultimately graduated from the university, four with CS degrees. In 1996, 20 women were admitted. Of the 18 who graduated from Carnegie Mellon, 12 received computer science degrees. The class of 1997 included 18 women. Sixteen will graduate from the university this May, and 14 are expected to receive computer science degrees.

According to Peter Lee, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the School of Computer Science, the program's success is the result of a concerted effort to understand differences in the way men and women relate to computers and to develop programs more attuned to women's interests and needs. This effort has spanned scientific research into gender differences in computing to specific changes in the curriculum and courses.

Although Carnegie Mellon has offered a doctoral degree in computer science since 1965, the undergraduate program is only 12 years old. Like other programs around the country, the ratio of women to men was extremely low. Concerned with what it said for their own program and for the discipline in general, administrators in the computer science school began an effort in 1995 to attract more women into the fold. They sought and received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to conduct research on gender differences in people's approach to computing.

The research revealed that women chose the field because of the career diversity it afforded rather than the fascination of tinkering with machines and programs. They also learned that women were likely to be discouraged from entering the discipline because they weren't hackers by nature.

Armed with this information, SCS researchers decided to attack the problem closer to its roots. They received $650,000 from the National Science Foundation to host three annual summer institutes for AP high school computer science teachers. The institutes were geared to learning and teaching the C++ programming language and to developing skills to recruit and retain female students in the computer science field. The workshops were designed to make the teachers aware of the gender disparity within their own programs, as well as the probable causes. They also were encouraged to promote gender equity within their classrooms. During its existence, the summer institutes reached 240 teachers—16 percent of all AP computer science teachers in the country. They, in turn, went back to their schools and taught other teachers in their region.

At the same time, SCS has been developing an infrastructure to support and encourage its female students. Lenore Blum, distinguished career professor of computer science, with an international reputation as a mathematician and computer scientist at Mills College and the University of California at Berkeley, came to Carnegie Mellon in 1999. A long-time activist for women, she is faculty adviser to "women@SCS," a student advisory board she formed for women in computer science. In addition to organizing student events, the group acts as an adviser and sounding board for SCS faculty and administrators. The students have their own Web page—http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~women—and meet weekly during the academic year. One of the key activities of the Advisory Council is its Big Sister/Little Sister program, which pairs graduate students and upper-class undergraduates with freshman and sophomore computer science majors. According to Blum their efforts are succeeding.

"We have this reputation," she says. "Carnegie Mellon is now the place to come for computer science if you're a woman."

But Lee says attracting women is not enough. That is only one facet of the population diversity necessary for the discipline to continue to successfully serve society.

"The power of computer technology is increasing at an exponential rate," he says. "A basic question is whether the current makeup of the community of computer scientists is equipped to harness this technology for the benefit of all humanity. In this sense, increasing the diversity of ideas, backgrounds, ambitions and perspectives of its population is absolutely critical to the future of the field.

"To do this," he says, "we simply need a more talented and more diverse group of students studying computer science. This is not a moral or political issue, but rather a statement about the health of the field as an intellectual discipline. And we believe it is our mission to address this issue head-on."

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