How Does Engaging Curriculum Attract Students to Computing?

The content of computing curriculum, especially introductory courses, is believed to contribute to the under-representation of women in information technology (IT). Research suggests that women are more interested in using computing as a tool for accomplishing a goal than they are in the workings of the machine. For example, certain IT instructional programs enroll higher proportions of women than do others. Data from a five-university study showed that women's average representation was lower in computer science than it was in management information systems, informatics, instructional systems technology, and information science/studies, though it was still below parity in these fields. Similarly, reports suggest that women's participation in computing might increase when media applications are used for teaching fundamental concepts (e.g., see the Media Computation approaches below).

In addition to more relevant and meaningful curricula, the greater participation of women in these IT disciplines and curricular programs may be due to the social climate. More women are present, so it is easier to develop an identity as a technical woman in a technical social context. These research findings show great promise for increasing the appeal of computing to women.

Establishing alternate pathways into IT study is another way that female under-representation has been addressed. According to Margolis and Fisher in their 2002 book, Unlocking the Clubhouse, introductory courses at Carnegie Mellon University that were tailored to different experience levels resulted in higher satisfaction for both more and less experienced students and for both male and female students.

 

MAKING IT MEANINGFUL

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. Under the existing educational policy of election, computing is rarely required in secondary school. 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, this means that 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 reduce the barriers of entry and level the playing field for those with limited experience.

Special accommodations for women? No. Most educational research shows that interventions that are better for women are also better for men. For example, collaborative learning environments lead to improved learning outcomes for all students, not just women. And bridge courses make it possible for a much larger and more diverse pool of students to "try out" computing, beyond those who elected to take computer science in high school.

As the Joint Task Force for "Computing Curricula 2005" points out, computing is no longer a monolithic area of study. The different curricula of the "family of computing-related disciplines" (p. 1) should be studied for their potential to attract high-quality male and female students and produce highly qualified computing professionals.


 

References

  • Cohoon, J. M. & Aspray, W. (2006). A critical review of the research on women's participation in postsecondary computing education. In J. M. Cohoon & W. Aspray (Eds.), Women and Information Technology: Research on underrepresentation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon