Harvey Mudd College’s Successful Systemic Approach (Case Study 2)

Attracting Students through an Engaging Introductory Computing Curriculum

Curriculum is one of the factors that contributes to the spectacularly successful pre- and early-computing major redesign carried out at Harvey Mudd College (HMC). Since Fall 2006, with faculty support, their introductory course separates students according to prior computing experience, takes a breadth first approach, and includes a faculty-led lab. Together with early student engagement in research, participation in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and the presence of a prominent high-level champion for women in computing, these steps have held student performance steady while skyrocketing women’s representation from consistently less than 20% all the way to 50% of the incoming computer science majors. See Figure 1.

Almost all of the women responding to a survey question about influences on their desire to major in CS indicated that this first course influenced them. For example, students wrote:

  • “It was surprisingly fun, and I learned I could do a lot with computers.”
  • “I knew basically nothing about CS when I came to Mudd, so CS1 was really my first look at it. After [the introductory course], I really wanted to take [the next course], which eventually convinced me to major in CS.”
  • “[The introductory course] was the first programming course I’d ever taken and it opened my eyes to the fun and challenges that CS could provide for me. Future classes served to reinforce this first impression and convince me it was something I enjoy and do well.”

Key Elements in the Course's Success

Broad but Tracked Enrollment

All incoming HMC students, typically around 200, enroll in the first computing course, so everyone, regardless of intended major, gets exposed to computing. Experienced and inexperienced students enroll in different sections, which minimizes mistaking familiarity for aptitude and the negative impact that mix-up has on inexperienced students’ confidence.

Faculty-led Labs that Assist Students

Faculty lead weekly 2-hour labs. The labs give students the option of getting structured help from a faculty member. The labs also give attending students full credit for one of the three or four assigned weekly homework problems.

Breadth-first Content that Capitalizes on Existing Interests

The new CS1 course immediately provides students with tools for writing engaging and useful programs and aligns assignments with students’ existing interests. At HMC, that interest is science or engineering, so the course begins with science and engineering task-specific functions. A summary of the course content is provided in Figure 2 (Dodds et al., 2008) 

Support from and for Faculty

The department chair reports that computer science faculty believed that the “old” CS1 course reinforced negative stereotypes of computer science (i.e., “CS is all about programming,” “CS is about machines,” “CS is not creative”), saw the need for improvement, and encouraged a working group to design a new course. The demonstrated success of the new model and the existence of tested and complete course materials (e.g., assignments, lecture slides and notes, other resources) make it relatively easy to recruit additional faculty members to contribute to the teaching of this course.


  • Alvarado, C. & Dodds, Z. (2010). Women in CS: An evaluation of three promising practices. Paper presented at SIGCSE 2010.
  • Dodds, Z., Libeskind-Hadas, R., Alvarado, C. & Kuenning, G.(2008). Evaluating a breadth-first CS 1 for scientists. Proceedings of the 39th SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, Portland, OR, 266–270.

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon