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September 04, 2014

Class of 2018: Women Set New Benchmark in Computer Science

While the number of women majoring in computer science at Carnegie Mellon has long exceeded national averages, this year’s incoming class has set a new benchmark for the university’s School 
of Computer Science (SCS).

About 41 percent, 56 of the 138 incoming SCS undergraduates, are women, surpassing the previous high-water mark of nearly 40 percent 14 years ago.

Women@SCSIncoming first-year student Rachel Gu brings with her a fascination with artificial intelligence that grew from watching Japanese anime series and reading manga, which are Japanese comics.

“I chose CMU after taking the pre-college program last summer because I loved not only the computer science program but also the faculty and current students,” Gu said. “The CMU students quickly offered to help me whenever I struggled, and the staff and teacher’s assistants were eager to answer questions and help solve technical issues.”

A project for incoming student Maitreyee Joshi’s local science fair in high school piqued her interest in the field. Joshi’s idea involved analyzing DNA mutations in cancer patients and she amazed herself — as well as the judges — with the computer program she created using just a laptop and the potential of that program to impact people’s lives.

“Computer science has the potential to create amazingly diverse applications that can impact every area of our lives,” Joshi said. “I would really like to use my computer science education from CMU to build assistive technologies that improve how the disabled live and interact with the world.”

According to the most recent Taulbee Survey compiled by the Computer Research Association, just 14 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science in 2012-13 nationwide were conferred on women. That compares to 22 percent that academic year at Carnegie Mellon, consistent with the percentage of women — 21 percent — who entered the program in 2008.

The last time that a class of first-year computer science majors came close to including 40 percent women was in 2000 during the first dot-com boom, after CMU had expanded its admissions criteria and launched an outreach program to high schools to encourage more female applicants. But that increase was short-lived, in part because the dot-com bust caused all 
applications to computer science programs to drop nationwide.

Lenore Blum, professor of computer science who joined the faculty in 1999, launched the Women@SCS program, instilling a new SCS philosophy based on providing women with the same opportunities for professional advancement as men, rather than catering to supposed differences in the interests of men and women.

“Women need the same things that have always been available to men — mentors, networks and role models, as well as friends who are also computer science majors,” said Blum, whose research and work to increase the participation of girls and women in computer science and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields began in the early 1970s.

“What we have shown is that making these opportunities explicit for the minority in a population ends up working to the advantage of everybody,” Blum added. “We see that women and men exhibit similar spectra of interests, ranging from coding to designing computer systems to developing applications of computer science.”

SCS has developed this inclusive culture while maintaining rigorous admission standards for all students.

Jacobo Carrasquel, freshman adviser since 2005, noted that enrollment of women has been steadily increasing, representing 29 percent and 34 percent of the 2012 and 2013 first-year classes, respectively.

One reason for the increase in women enrollees may relate to the increased popularity of computer science — a discipline in high demand by employers and that is now inextricable with most fields including science, economics, engineering and the arts.

“I think the message for undergraduates coming in is clear, that SCS and CMU value diversity,” said Tom Cortina, assistant dean for undergraduate education.

“Students and teachers now understand that if I’m interested in any subject today, say I want to be a biologist, I need to understand something about computing,” he added.

CMU received nearly 6,200 applicants for its undergraduate computer science program — a record number.

The School of Computer Science, now celebrating its 25th year, once again has received the highest possible score in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of Ph.D. programs in computer science.

By: Byron Spice,

Computer Science Professor Lenore Blum (back row, third from right) poses with first-year students at the 
Women@SCS meeting in late August. Students in the back row are (l-r) Anisha Padwekar, Christine Lee, Jie Li, Maunika Atmakuri, Abhy Vytheeswaran, Summer Kitahara and Asra Mahmood. In the front row are (l-r) Jennifer Chou and Maitreyee Joshi. Women@SCS is an organization that supports opportunities for women in computer science.