Veronica Rivera signed up for the introduction to computer science class at Harvey Mudd College mostly because she had no choice: It was mandatory. Programming was intimidating and not for her, she thought.
She expected the class to be full of guys who loved video games and grew up obsessing over how they were made. There were plenty of those guys but, to her surprise, she found the class fascinating.
She learned how to program a computer to play “Connect Four” and wrote algorithms that could recognize lines of Shakespeare and generate new text with similar sentence patterns.
When that first class ended, she signed up for the next level, then another and eventually declared a joint major of computer science and math. Cheering her on were professors who had set out to show her that women belonged in computer science just as much as men did.
It’s a message that goes unheard at many universities. Nationwide, according to the Computing Research Assn., more than 84% of undergraduates who major in computer science are men.
Not so at Harvey Mudd, where more than half — 55% — of the latest class of computer science graduates were women, compared to roughly 10% a decade ago.
Programming is so popular now in this science and engineering corner of the Claremont Colleges that its professors are campus celebrities and incoming freshmen are excited for classes before ever setting foot on campus.
The school’s breakthrough came when the department’s professors realized that in order to change computer science’s reputation, they had to change how it was taught.
“Computing has an image problem … and the faculty just have their work cut out for them,” said Jane Stout, director of CRA’s Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline. “They’ve got to market it. They’ve got to sell it. They’ve got to change all the negative stereotypes.”
This article first appeared in The LA Times. Read more here.