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New Northeastern curriculum aimed at women in computer science

Concerned about the percentage of women working in tech, Carla Brodley has created curriculum designed to expose students to computer science and, particularly, inspire women.

Northeastern University has established a new brand of curriculum aimed at evoking more interest in the field of computer science, particularly among women.

Carla Brodley, dean of Northeastern's College of Computer and Information Science, has been a forerunner of this movement, implementing a number of programs for both undergraduate and graduate students that revolve around both class selections and "co-op," the school's featured work study program. She believes these programs will significantly impact the university's ability to increase the enrollment of women in computer science courses and help it establish careers in that field.

In this Q&A with Brodley, we asked her about goals for this plan, how she has put this into action and why she thinks creating an intersection between computer science and other areas of study is important for both women and the tech field.

What kind of numbers would you like to see for women in computer science?

Carla BrodleyCarla Brodley

Carla Brodley: I would like [the demographics] to be 50% female, both in our undergraduate and in our master's program by 2021.

If half of the enrollments in all of our classes are female, I'm going to feel really good. We're at 26% for last year. And in the graduate population, we are at 33% in all of our enrollments -- those are up from where they were when I took over two years ago.

How do you get more interest from women in computer science?

I cannot make computer science required for all Northeastern students. That's not right or fair. So, I have to make it attractive to try computer science.
Carla Brodleydean of College of Computer and Information Science, Northeastern University

Brodley: First of all, I cannot make computer science required for all Northeastern students. That's not right or fair. So, I have to make it attractive to try computer science.

In the undergraduate population, we've created combined majors with social sciences and humanities majors, as well as arts media and design majors. Right now, we have 26 combined majors.

So, students come in and, instead of doing a double major ... we take what we really think is essential from both and put them together. And the courses that are required from the computer science side depend a bit on what the other major is.

What else have you done?

Brodley: The other thing we did was come up with a program called 'Meaningful Minors' in computer science. And the idea is that you do a minor -- it's five classes. The first two classes are the required intro sequence for all of our classes. The next two classes are electives that you choose within computer science. Through advising, we help you figure out what makes sense for your major. So, for example, if you're an English major, you might want to take natural language understanding and data visualization [courses].

The fifth course is one that is actually not offered by our college but is offered by your home college. So, for example, in political science you might take network science.

The last thing that we're doing to try to increase interest in enrollments in computer science is the development of something called 'Paired Courses,' where you take a course in another discipline and at the same time you take our intro course.

The course that started this fall is called Bostonography. Students learn about things like how do you disprove the broken windows theory (a really nice piece of work done by some professors here). Then, at the end of the semester, you do a project in that course that allows you to use the programming skills you've learned in the computer science course.

Now, why did we do that? There's been research that shows that if you create a cohort of people who are maybe not that comfortable taking computer science and you put them all together, it increases their probability of success in sticking to it. So, all of the kids who are taking this course in Bostonography ... they get to know each other because it's a smaller group.

Has this translated to the graduate level as well?

Brodley: At the graduate level, I did something completely different. I created a master's program for people who studied something other than computer science as an undergraduate. And we piloted this at our Seattle campus. We're in the fourth year there and we've just brought it to Boston, and we're scaling it because it was a success.

They come in and they do a two-semester bridge program where we teach about half of what's in an undergraduate degree and the half you really need to be able to survive in the graduate program. You can then specialize and learn more from there. They then go directly into the master's program.

One semester before they're done, they go out on co-op just like all of our master students do. Then they come back, they do one more semester and then they go out to work.

Has it been a success?

Brodley: Our first class graduated in the last year, and they got fabulous jobs -- they got jobs at Amazon, at Facebook, at Porch, at Staples and at Zeelo. Our second class that entered two years ago just finished their co-ops. ... Many of them got job offers already from their co-op employers and [it's] really exciting. And so we consider the program a resounding success.

That program is 50% female. And people majored in all kinds of things -- from political science, to English, to biology, to chemistry, to math, to economics, to business. And I think one of the biggest resounding successes is that they're all together, haven't had computer science, and all want to make this leap of faith and try it. And we've had almost zero attrition in this program.

Do you see a day when computer science is wrapped into almost every other major?

Brodley: I think everybody should have the opportunity to try computer science. And the programs that I've designed are about widening the pipeline. I could try to do this just through admissions ... but, to me, that's stealing from other people in the sense that I'm not solving the problem.

Next Steps

What do young women want from their IT careers?

Who are the most influential women in IT?

Learn how diversity makes a difference in IT

This was last published in October 2016

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What steps do you think are needed to increase the number of women in computer science?
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I think the earlier computer science education is started, the more it will encourage a diverse range of people to see it as a viable career option. 
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Create interest in Maths for students (girls) from VI class. Generally they prefer sciences. Create awards, fellowships to opt maths. Conduct extra classes if necessary. Create interest in Computer science by showing the immense benefits of CS applications.
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Teach it in middle school and high school instead of typing and Microsoft applications as required technical skills. At those younger grades, girls will not believe the myth that its only for males who fit the geek stereotype.
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