» Cracking the Code: Making the CS Degree Accessible for All Students

Cracking the Code: Making the CS Degree Accessible for All Students

Dr. Linda J. Sax, professor of higher education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies

By Shana Vu

Close your eyes and picture a computer science college student. In all likelihood, you imagined a male. And perhaps the most salient reason –  women earned only 18% of all computer science (CS) degrees in 2015 with even lower representation for women of color, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And while identifying the exact root or cause of this statistic is a difficult task, what happens on the inside of a CS college classroom has an undeniable role in shaping the number of women who enter the programming field. While there is both increased attention on gender disparity within Silicon Valley, due to the availability of diversity statistics and a push to expose young girls to coding, more research is needed to understand the role that colleges can play in the diversity process.

Enter the BRAID (Building, Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity) Research Team, led by Dr. Linda J. Sax, professor of higher education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. The team’s research aims to pinpoint specific strategies to attract and retain women and students of color in computing majors in higher education.

“The university experience for prospective CS students, especially when it comes to introductory CS classes, can make or break a student’s decision,” says Sax on the significance of studying the college experience.

Sax’s research team is part of the BRAID Initiative, started by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) and Harvey Mudd College in 2014 with funding from Facebook, Google, Intel, and Microsoft, which supports efforts to increase the percentage of women and minorities in undergraduate computing programs. The BRAID Initiative partners with 15 universities across the U.S that have pledged to increase diversity and inclusivity within their computer science departments.

BRAID’s Purpose

Armed with a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation awarded in 2015, the BRAID Research Team is conducting an unprecedented large-scale longitudinal study, with the ultimate goal of identifying the best practices for keeping women and students of color in the field.

“We want to find out how CS departments can instill not only a sense of confidence in computing skills, but a sense of belonging within women and students of color,” Sax said.

And while women have made significant gains in many fields including medicine, business, and law during the last few decades, that is not the case for computer science, where the gender gap is still relatively large. Also, the percentage of women who receive computer science degrees is the smallest across all STEM fields, including biology, math, engineering and the physical sciences, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Most dishearteningly, the percentage of CS-degree holders who were women peaked in the 1980s at 34% and has been on a downward trend ever since despite currently receiving 57% of all undergraduate degrees.

While gender parity in the programming field for the sake of equality is important, Sax acknowledges, she states the impetus for attracting and retaining girls to the field: “If girls aren’t involved in building technological products, not only are they missing out on some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs, we’re also missing out on the brainpower that these women can bring to the table.”

The Beginning

Although the BRAID Research Team has been active for the last two years, Sax has been focused on gender differences in higher education during her entire career. Her interest stemmed from a longstanding observation that women in STEM fields tend to change their major more often than men, which led her to author over two dozen publications on the topic of women in STEM.

She describes being chosen to lead BRAID research as serendipitous. “I heard about ABI at a conference, and I just knew I really, really wanted to do it, especially considering my previous research on women in STEM fields,” she says. “Here was this chance to work with a huge, diverse sample across many institutions, especially when most studies that have been conducted are only at a local university level.”

Working with a team of eight Ph.D. candidates, Sax has been conducting a mixed method survey with over 10,000 respondents across 15 participating CS departments for the last two years. While the first findings are starting to trickle in and analysis is still in a preliminary stage, the BRAID team continues to collect data on an annual basis.  

As Kate Lehman, the project manager of BRAID Research explains, BRAID’s data collection comes via two starting points: qualitative sources such as interviews and quantitative sources including surveys.  She says that in her opinion, mixing the quantitative and qualitative has led to richer findings.

“A lot of the nuances about what works in classes, what works on a department level, we capture by talking it out,” Lehman says.

Like Sax, Lehman found her way into the BRAID project because of a desire to alleviate the gender disparity she saw in tech.

“Especially as someone whose husband and dad are in technology, I always was conscious of the gender differences within technology,” Lehman said.

And paralleling Sax’s longstanding attention to the problem, Lehman’s dissertation was on why students choose to stay and leave the CS major.

The Methodology

BRAID relies on annual surveys to gain a thorough understanding of how many women and minorities are enrolled in intro CS classes as well as how their feelings toward the major change after taking the intro class. The surveys are distributed across the 15 BRAID schools, which include smaller, private schools like Villanova University and large public research institutions like Arizona State University.

“While it is admittedly a convenience sample of BRAID affiliated schools we work with, it’s surprising how well it maps onto the national trend,” Lehman said. “We account for geography, size of institution, whether it’s public and private.”

The team also conducts student, departmental, and faculty interviews, as well as syllabi analysis, and follows up yearly to track student major trajectories and long-term career aspirations in an effort to understand the qualities that work to encourage a student to complete a CS degree.

The Findings

A recurring theme in the qualitative interviews is that the experiences in introductory CS classes, especially those taken by non-majors, are instrumental in developing a desire to stay in the field. The BRAID data has shown that women who take “Intro to CS" classes tend to be later in their college career than men and they are usually not CS majors. As women are better represented in CS intro courses (32%) than among actual CS degree earners (16%), BRAID researchers believe that CS Intro classes are particularly significant in whether a student chooses to go down the CS pathway.

Lehman stresses that the first impressions of CS are shaped by these introductory classes, especially because women, on average, are less likely to take a CS class in high school.

“So if a class just assumes that all the students have some background in coding, it can put some students at a disadvantage, especially because when it comes to programming, you have to learn ‘how to learn’ programming,” she says.

According to Lehman, another way that introductory CS classes inadvertently drive away female students is by encouraging the feeling that those students can’t make mistakes, which are an integral part of learning to code.

“Women are socialized to feel that they can’t fail and that they have to achieve perfection, so when their code doesn’t run, women often feel discouraged about their own abilities,” she says. “Men, on the other hand, are often more aware of the fact that programming is a trial and error process and don’t see code not running as a reflection of their own skills.”

Building smaller checkpoints to affirm successes and breaking down assignments into smaller parts can help students build confidence in their learning and work. That confidence, Lehman says, is key to retention within the world of programming and computer science.

Collaboration also plays a determining factor in retaining women in CS, according to Sax.

“If someone stays in the major, it’s usually because they have strong peer connections,” she said. “When they leave, it’s not because they’re not capable, but it’s typically because they have this idea that CS does not contribute to the social good and they want to help people in their career.”

A paradoxical finding from the BRAID study is that even when their actual achievements are similar, women typically have lower confidence in their programming abilities than men.

The Foreground

While the findings of BRAID are far from conclusive, Lehman and Sax predict that are a few main factors at play that are to explain for 4:1 ratio of men to women in CS.

One factor is society’s portrayal of programmers, especially in media (think “Mr. Robot” and “Silicon Valley”). Reflecting on how media shapes perception of CS by females and males alike, Sax says, “Programming is seen as something that’s overtly masculine and geeky. There’s this idea that a programmer is a skinny, nerdy hacker who has poor interpersonal skills and works in his basement.”

Similarly, Lehman says that the current state of the CS major is the result of society telling us “where we belong and what we would be good doing.”

And even if students don’t think of programming and computing with negative stereotypes, Sax says that many students tend to think that majoring in computer science means devoting their life to computers.

Lehman and Sax both agree that the female students they interview often dismiss CS as a skill that doesn’t help people, which many female students aim to do. Sax says, “A lot of people think that CS and programming aren’t as impactful in society as other fields. In reality, programmers have an incredible social value.”

Looking Forward

Lehman and Sax have insured funding for the research team through the NSF grant until 2020. The next big research question looming centers around CS undergraduate pathways and how those may differ between men and women. With the help of the grant, Sachs also hopes to continue to follow-up with non-majors who took introductory CS classes and see if their impressions of CS have changed.

And while Sax and Lehman are cautious to make any definitive conclusions yet from the initial data, they are both optimistic about their findings so far.

“I’m confident that with this study, we can find out ‘what works’ and ‘for whom,’” Sax said. “And more importantly, see some change over time in diversifying computer science.”

About Women in Tech

UCLA’s Women in Tech (WIT) initiative is led by the Office of Information Technology and focuses on key issues that women and minorities face in the technology sector, including lack of access to funding, workplace culture, and flexibility. This article is part of the WIT Spotlight Feature Series and showcases the women and research within the UCLA community around technology, entrepreneurship, or STEM fields

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