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W&L Women in Computer Science Continue to Buck National Trend

A recent CBS News story that highlighted the national trend declared: “It’s true and it’s shocking. Just one in every 10 computer science graduates is a woman.”

At Washington and Lee, however, the drive to recruit more women to study computer science has resulted in females comprising 31 percent of the University’s computer science majors in 2011. “I’m very excited that we’ve been continuously successful in bringing in women students,” said Sara Sprenkle, assistant professor of computer science at W&L.

W&L’s success is attributable to several factors, according to Sprenkle: a job market that is looking for computer science graduates; other departments in the University recommending the subject as a way to fulfill general requirements; solid support for women students inside and outside the classroom; a high ratio of women professors in the field at W&L; and introductory classes that attract and then inspire students to study computer science.

Sprenkle observed that getting the word out about what computer science is and having good introductory classes is essential to attracting students. “In the introductory classes we show students what they can do with computer science,” she said. “There’s a typical idea that it’s all about zeroes and ones, or it’s all about the hardware and knowing how to fix a computer. We actually don’t do that at all. Computer science is about working with data, which doesn’t sound very cool until you start thinking about it, and then it’s really cool. It’s applicable to anything and everything and is about how to do things most efficiently and effectively.”

According to Sprenkle, none of the women students currently majoring in computer science expected to major in the subject. “They took an introductory class or two and realized they were good at it, which was a surprise to most of them. They had never even thought about it,” she said.

Sprenkle gave the example of Camille Cobb, a senior computer science and physics double major from Huntersville, N.C. “Camille figured out that she was just really talented at it,” said Sprenkle. “She was inspired when she realized she could contribute to state-of-the-art research by thinking about how to customize web application testing to different types of users. People haven’t really studied that area in terms of how to test it, but she could answer those questions as a first-year student. A paper she co-authored on her research will appear in the proceedings of the International Conference on Software Testing, Verification and Validation in April.”

Senior Anna Pobletts, a computer science and math double major from Sykesville, Md., came to W&L thinking she would major in political science. “She realized she didn’t like writing papers but that she’s actually very good at problem solving,” said Sprenkle. “She’s so good, and I can’t believe how she just knocks everything out of the park in class.”

Simon Levy, associate professor of computer science at W&L and department head, agreed on the importance of the introductory courses. “If students have a good experience in the introductory courses it really helps,” he said. “But if they are overwhelmed, then it can be a real turn off. I think we’re very good at W&L at making those classes really count by putting a lot of effort into them. We don’t just give them to teaching assistants, which is what happens at most universities.”

Sprenkle said that she was particularly struck by the fact that all her women students are double majors, combining computer science with another subject such as journalism, math or physics. “Last year we even had a double major in computer science and classics,” she said.

Encouraging her colleagues in other departments to promote computer science as an option has been pivotal, said Sprenkle. “We ask our colleagues to tell students that they should really try computer science,” she said. “Students can take either mathematics or computer science as part of their general requirements, and we have four introductory computer science classes they can take instead of mathematics.”

The department of journalism and mass communication, for example, “has really been encouraging their students to take computer science because of the media aspect,” Sprenkle pointed out. “Covering technology stories is a big open field and my impression is that there is a high demand. A journalism student studying computer science can better understand what people are talking about in technology and then translate it so that everybody understands what’s going on.”

Junior Shannon McGovern, a computer science and journalism double major from Silver Spring, Md., agreed.  “I took Computer Science 101 thinking it would be a practical skill to have, and it turned out be kind of fun. So I kept taking classes and ended up majoring in it. Being able to use code and digital tools for storytelling helps set me apart,” she said.

“I think many of the women students are excited about what they do in the introductory courses,” said Levy. “I attribute a lot of that to Sara Sprenkle. She been especially good at getting students involved in research and publications, and that’s important. Also, it’s been consistently observed that when you have women teaching a subject, you get more women involved in taking it as a major. Twenty-five percent of our computer science department is women. That’s one out of four, which is better than most places.”

McGovern said that all her computer science professors are very supportive. “Besides dedicating a significant amount of time outside of class to helping students, they all encourage us to pursue opportunities outside the classroom. Professor Sprenkle is particularly enthusiastic about women in computer science,” she said.

Sprenkle’s enthusiasm includes co-founding, with Assistant Professor of Mathematics Katherine Crowley, the Women in Math and Science Group (WIMS) at Washington and Lee. “Our aim is to build a community on campus of women students and faculty so we can support each other,” said Sprenkle. The group hosts speakers, organizes social events, and has workshops on topics such as how to apply for graduate school in mathematics and science, as well as discussions on issues particular to succeeding as a woman in male-dominated fields.

The final part of the equation contributing to W&L’s success in attracting women to computer science is the job market. “Our first year introductory classes are jam packed with students because they want to be able to get a job when they graduate,” said Sprenkle. “So the economy and being able to get jobs afterwards are huge factors.”

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Sarah Tschiggfrie
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