Designing for Diversity (Case Study 2)

Recruiting Women through Inclusive Pedagogy

The undergraduate computer science (CS) program at the University of Virginia took several successful steps to improve the recruitment of women from their introductory course into the CS major. The department instituted multiple entry paths that tracked experienced and inexperienced students into different sections and incorporated structured laboratories into the “lecture” portion of the inexperienced section. The instructor repeatedly and explicitly encouraged students to choose a computer science major, used examples and assignments that appeal to diverse student groups, and deliberately established a class culture that extended beyond the course. These actions, together with smaller class size, markedly increased the yield of CS majors, and particularly, women and minority CS majors.

All first-year engineering students at UVA are required to earn credit for CS101, the introductory computer science course. Because it is a service course, the school requires an introduction to programming rather than a survey of computing and its grand challenges. To meet the needs of inexperienced students, a higher proportion of whom are women and ethnic or racial minorities, two special sections, CS101E and CS101X, are offered in addition to a regular CS101. All sections cover comparable content, but the prerequisites differ. CS101E is for students with prior classroom experience with variables and control constructs. CS101E students complete their lab assignments at times of their own choosing in open laboratories. CS101X enrolls students who are unfamiliar with programming. This section integrates lecture with guided, in-class experience in an environment free from the potentially intimidating comparison with more advanced classmates. CS101 is available to any student.

Enrolling only inexperienced students affects course demographics. The Student Demographics table (see top right) compares the population of incoming engineering students in 2005 with the population of CS101X. The course was almost half women, and Black students were over-represented — highly unusual demographics for computing or engineering classes. Also unusual for a UVA introductory computing course was the number of students enrolled in CS101X. Space restrictions limited enrollment to 43 students. During the same semester, CS101 enrolled 356 students and CS101E enrolled 91 students.


Surveys identified applications and examples of interest to students. Based on survey results, and research indicating that female and minority students are particularly interested in applications with obvious benefits to society, CS101X emphasizes examples and assignments related to language translation, psychological testing, health, medical diagnosis, and games.

Other pedagogical practices are also designed to be inclusive and attractive to female and minority students. The instructor brings women professionals to discuss their careers. The instructor also routinely expounds on the breadth of options, advantages, and rewards in a computing career. Classroom discussion is routine and offers opportunities for students to learn each others’ interests and activities.

The results from the CS101X initiative are student grades comparable to previous CS101 grades, but with more students, more women, and more minority students choosing a CS major. From the beginning to the end of the semester, CS101X increased the number of its students intending a CS major from one to eight. The CS Major Yields table shows striking differences in course success in attracting underrepresented students to a computing major.


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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon