How Do You Introduce Computing in an Engaging Way?

Experience with computers between boys and girls has equalized, but boys continue to have greater knowledge of computing and programming concepts than do girls. Not so in biology, chemistry, or mathematics, where both boys and girls are encouraged to provide evidence of proficiency when they apply to college. High school study of these subjects familiarizes students with the content and concepts, and gives them confidence. The result is that women’s undergraduate completion rates have neared parity in these disciplines.

Because IT study is elective in almost all K-12 schools, developing relevant and interesting assignments that appeal to a broader audience is recommended for:

  • fostering a climate where the non-predisposed can belong both academically and socially
  • recruiting students who are not predisposed to pursuing computing
  • exposing fundamental computing concepts to inexperienced learners

Is prior programming experience required for students to be successful in an IT program? Most undergraduate departments would say no. That is, experience with programming is not the same as expertise in problem-solving, algorithmic thinking, or computing theory. Yet research shows that introductory courses and their embedded assignments work better for students who have some experience with programming.

Research also shows that students with programming experience are more confident and more successful in introductory courses than are their inexperienced peers. Students with lower grades or less confidence are less likely to persist in an IT major. What is more, when introductory courses have limited opportunities for talking to other students (e.g., collaborative learning), inexperienced students have little information on which to judge whether they belong academically in the major. Hence more women than men switch out of IT majors (most often to other sciences or mathematics).



Educational researchers emphasize the importance of linking educational materials and curricular programs to students’ existing knowledge and experiences. When class syllabi list topics and assignments that focus on unfamiliar concepts with limited, if any, relationship to a student’s life experience or interests, she or he is unlikely to take that class. High school curricula contribute to low enrollments in college computing because, under the existing educational policy of election, computing is rarely required in secondary schools. This means that students are likely to have a narrow and inaccurate view of what IT study involves, what careers are possible, or what kind of people “do” IT. Given the very small proportion of females who study computing in high school, females are less likely to choose IT in college.

The challenge to educators at all levels is to develop engaging assignments and curriculum that can appeal to a variety of students with different learning styles, interests, socio-cultural backgrounds, and abilities, while maintaining the rigor of the discipline. Putting the concepts of computing in appealing contexts and building on existing competence can both reduce entry barriers and level the playing field for those with limited experience.

Creative assignments that teach algorithmic thinking while also calling on students’ existing knowledge or interests, may serve to both recruit and retain students. When experienced and inexperienced students use non-computer-based assignments to learn computing concepts, they quickly realize that their peers with programming experience are not necessarily better at algorithmic thinking, just more experienced with programming. Building confidence through relevant and interesting assignments is a promising practice for motivating student enrollment and retention.


  • Lecia Barker and William Aspray, “The State of Research on Pre-College Experiences of Girls with Information Technology.” In McGrath Cohoon, J. and W. Aspray (Eds.) Women and Information Technology: Research on the Reasons for Under-Representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
  • Joanne McGrath Cohoon and William Aspray, “A Critical Review of the Research on Women’s Participation in Postsecondary Computing Education.” In McGrath Cohoon, J. and W. Aspray (Eds.) Women and Information Technology: Research on the Reasons for Under-Representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon