Small Steps Toward Systemic Change (Case Study 1)

Examples of Initiatives to Increase Women’s Representation in Computing

Carnegie Mellon University has had well-documented and celebrated success with improving gender diversity in its College of Computing. Its research-based systemic change included: recruitment through feeder networks and outreach; revising admission criteria to maintain high academic standards, but deemphasizing experiences women were less likely to have; offering multiple entry points to accommodate incoming students’ different levels of programming experience; and creating a supportive peer community for women. The resulting change was dramatic: women’s representation in the incoming class rose from 7 percent to 40 percent between 1996 and 2000.

The University of California at Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences has made fundamental changes in introductory CS courses to improve retention and increase student pass rates.  The School implemented pair programming, redistributed course topics to reduce duplication, provided better training for TAs, increased shared lab time, and introduced peer lab tutors.  Evaluation showed promising results: student pass rates increased from 50% to 82%, with improved retention overall. Initially skeptical instructors became advocates for the changes when they saw substantial improvement in student performance based on individual assessments.  Most students thought it was easier to complete assignments and felt their programs were more reliable. While most students felt pair programming was extremely helpful, female students were more likely to recommend pair programming and to believe that it develops teamwork skills and leads to greater success than individual work. In addition to improved student performance overall, men and women were equally likely to persist through the end of the course and believe that they would complete their ICS major.

The University of Virginia School of Engineering & Applied Science requires that all freshmen take an introductory computer science course. This policy creates an opportunity for attracting students to the major. To attract more women into the major, the Computer Science department changed the introductory course. First, students were directed into different sections, depending on their programming experience level. Second, the inexperienced section incorporated structured laboratories into the “lecture.” Third, the instructor repeatedly and explicitly encouraged students to choose a computer science major. Fourth, the instructor used examples and assignments designed to be meaningful to diverse students’ life experiences and interests. Fifth, a positive class culture extending beyond the course was established. Evaluation showed that, together with a reduced class size of 43 students, the course change markedly increased the yield of CS majors. Moreover, 33 percent of the women and 27 percent of minority students from this course chose CS majors.


NCWIT Extension Services for Undergraduate Programssupports undergraduate computing departments in their efforts to reengineer their programs and create diversity. There are two levels of service: targeted and full. Targeted service supports clients implementing a single effective practice by providing information and consultation, helping to build and implement an evaluation plan, developing a survey of students, etc. Full service clients receive assistance with creating departmental conditions conducive to systemic change. We:

  • Describe current conditions and compare them with other institutions

  • Inform faculty of opportunities and methods for increasing gender diversity

  • Enlist high-level university support for your initiative

  • Assist with developing a comprehensive diversity plan and support its implementation

  • Guide evaluation

  • Participate in dissemination of your successful practices and telling your story


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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon