[Edu-sig] transforming CS at Harvey Mudd

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Tue Apr 3 19:09:27 CEST 2012

Picked off the math-teach list (where I'm active).

Mentions Python (as part of what made CS less intimidating).



April 2, 2012
Giving Women the Access Code

CLAREMONT, Calif. — When Maria Klawe became president of Harvey Mudd
College in 2006, she was dismayed — but not surprised — at how few
women were majoring in computer science.

A mathematician and computer scientist herself, she arrived at Harvey
Mudd (the smallest of the five so-called Claremont Colleges) in the
midst of a nationwide downturn for women in computer science. As
recently as 1985, 37 percent of graduates in the field were women; by
2005 it was down to 22 percent, and sinking.

And the situation at Mudd was even grimmer. Of the college’s 750
students, about a third were women (the figure is now closer to half),
but for years the percentage of computer science graduates had been
hovering around the single digits.

How Dr. Klawe (pronounced KLAH-vay) and her faculty turned things
around — this year, nearly 40 percent of Harvey Mudd’s computer
science degrees will go to women — sheds light on a gender gap that
elsewhere remains stubbornly resistant to changing times.

Thanks in part to companies like Facebook, Yelp and Zynga and in part
to cultural sensations like the movie “The Social Network,” coders are
hip and computer science is hot. Departments across the nation are
brimming with students.

But those students are overwhelmingly male. In 2010, just 18.2 percent
of undergraduates in the field were women, according to the National
Center for Education Statistics — in spite of gains in chemistry,
biomechanical engineering and other so-called STEM fields (the acronym
stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“It must be the unique area of science and technology where women have
made negative progress,” said Nicholas Pippenger, a mathematics
professor at Harvey Mudd, who is married to Dr. Klawe.

Dr. Klawe and others say the underrepresentation of women in the field
is detrimental in a larger sense. Computer science, they say, is as
vital to propelling society forward in the digital era as mechanical
engineering was in the industrial age.

“If we’re not getting more women to be part of that, it’s just nuts,”
Dr. Klawe said. At Mudd, she continued, “we’re graduating 20 female
computer science majors a year, and every one of them is a gem.” In
2005, the year before Dr. Klawe arrived, a group of faculty members
embarked on a full makeover of the introductory computer science
course, a requirement at Mudd.

Known as CS 5, the course focused on hard-core programming, appealing
to a particular kind of student — young men, already seasoned
programmers, who dominated the class. This only reinforced the women’s
sense that computer science was for geeky know-it-alls.

“Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer
science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with,” said
Zachary Dodds, a computer scientist at Mudd. “We realized we were
helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course.”

To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two
sections — “gold,” for those with no prior experience, and “black” for
everyone else. Java, a notoriously opaque programming language, was
replaced by a more accessible language called Python. And the focus of
the course changed to computational approaches to solving problems
across science.

“We realized that we needed to show students computer science is not
all about programming,” said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, chairman of the
department. “It has intellectual depth and connections to other

Dr. Klawe supported the cause wholeheartedly, and provided money from
the college for every female freshman to travel to the annual Grace
Hopper conference, named after a pioneering programmer. The
conference, where freshmen are surrounded by female role models, has
inspired many a first-year “Mudder” to explore computer science more

Firsthand Experience

The topic of women in computing was a preoccupation for Dr. Klawe well
before she took over at Harvey Mudd, in part because when she chose
her profession, women in male-dominated fields were especially rare.

“She was consistently told by teachers in adolescence, then later by
colleagues, that the things she was interested in were things women
didn’t do, and that there were no good female mathematicians,” Dr.
Pippenger said.

Dr. Klawe persevered. A native Canadian, she received her Ph.D. in
mathematics in 1977 from the University of Alberta. She started a
second Ph.D., in computer science, at the University of Toronto, but
was offered a faculty position there before completing the degree.

In 1980, she married Dr. Pippenger, a highly regarded theoretical
computer scientist, and for the first decade of their marriage Dr.
Klawe was the professional afterthought. In the 1980s, they both
worked at the I.B.M. Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. “They
only hired me so they wouldn’t lose Nick,” Dr. Klawe said.

They moved to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 1988,
and Dr. Klawe’s talents as an administrator began to blossom. In 2002,
she was recruited to Princeton University as dean of engineering and
applied sciences.

“By the time we went to Princeton,” Dr. Pippenger said, “it was clear
they were hiring me because they really wanted to get Maria.” Dr.
Klawe, a slight and sprightly woman, had not been at Princeton long
before she began receiving recruiting inquiries. “If you’re a female
administrator at a place like Princeton, you’ll get a request to be
president or provost twice a week,” she said. “A lot of times it’s not
that they care about you, but they need a credible female candidate.”

She seldom read beyond the first few lines. “I had this automatic
message saying I was honored to be nominated, but had no intention of
leaving Princeton in the near future,” she said.

Then one day in 2005, an announcement about the search for a president
at Harvey Mudd floated into her in-box. She knew about the college and
couldn’t resist opening the attachment.

“I read it and thought, ‘Oh, my God, the person they’re talking about
for this job is exactly me,’ ” she said.

Soon after arriving at Mudd, she gathered the school’s extended
community to help formulate a long-term strategic vision. “She shut
down the school for four days,” said Robert Cave, vice president for
academic affairs. “She said, ‘I want the entire community to be
involved in charting the course of Harvey Mudd for the next 10 years.’

In her third year on the job, Dr. Klawe landed the largest single
contribution in the college’s 57-year history — $25 million from R.
Michael Shanahan, a financier and the former chairman of Mudd’s board,
who has since given an additional $6 million.

Now 60, Dr. Klawe is most often seen on campus in jeans — even,
sometimes, on a skateboard, a skill she taught herself in just the
last few years. (“We would all really worry if she didn’t wear her
protective gear,” Dr. Cave said.)

Her leadership style is equally informal, and it has taken some of the
faculty by surprise. Professor Libeskind-Hadas recalled that at one of
the first full faculty meetings, she spoke while sitting on a table in
front of the room.

In a nod to Mudd’s very personal character, Dr. Klawe said, every
summer she uses a flash card program to memorize the names of the
nearly 200 incoming freshmen. On campus, she greets each student she
passes by name. When the occasional prankster tries to stump her by
presenting her with a non-Mudder, “usually I can figure it out,” she
said, “but not always.”

She is an inveterate booster and recruiter for Harvey Mudd. On planes
and ski lifts, at conferences and in far-flung restaurants, she often
wears a T-shirt reading, “The Most Amazing School You’ve Never Heard
Of.” (The answer is on the back. Harvey Mudd, by the way, was a mining
magnate in the first half of the 20th century.)

Finding Success

Efforts like these are bearing fruit. More high school seniors than
ever are applying to Harvey Mudd. The college now accepts just 17
percent of applicants, and routinely snatches high school seniors who
might otherwise choose better-known institutions like the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon.

Dr. Klawe sometimes does the recruiting herself, sending personal
messages to fence-sitters. “You tell her about a kid you really want
and within four seconds, she’s sent an e-mail,” said Thyra Briggs,
Mudd’s vice president for admission and financial aid.

Dr. Klawe and others speak of “converting” female students to computer
science. The idea, they say, is to make the introductory course
enjoyable and interesting enough that women who were thinking of other
majors choose computer science instead.

Bridgette Eichelberger, a sophomore, is one such convert. She entered
Mudd interested in engineering, only to switch computer science after
taking CS 5.

“I’m in my required engineering course now, and it’s fun,” she said.
“But it’s nothing like the happiness I’ve been getting from C.S.
courses.” She has a job lined up for the summer, working for

“If she had missed computer science, it would have been a missed
opportunity for both sides,” Professor Dodds said.

Whether Mudd’s success can be replicated on a broad scale is unclear.
Only a handful of colleges make computer science a requirement, which
creates built-in exposure to the subject. And with fewer than 100
female freshmen, Mudd can afford to send all of them to the Hopper

Still, signs of progress dot the higher education landscape.

At Carnegie Mellon, the percentage of incoming women enrolled in the
computer science program has been rising since 2008, and is at 32
percent. M.I.T.’s figure is 30 percent. “Close to 50 percent of our
undergraduates are women,” said Barbara Liskov, a computer scientist
there. “So having 30 percent is nice, and better than it used to be,
but not as good as you might hope for.”

The University of California, Berkeley, and a few other universities
have also redesigned their computer science courses to be less
intimidating. The Berkeley course aimed at nonmajors is called “The
Beauty and Joy of Computing.” Brian Harvey, a computer scientist
there, said half the students who finish the course go on to take the
course for majors. “We are 150 students per semester and climbing,” he
said, adding that half the students are women and women do as well as
the men.

Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pa., recently adopted the “gold”
version of Mudd’s CS 5 course in its entirety.

Stanford is also working to make computer science more attractive to
women. “What Harvey Mudd has done is super,” said Stephen Cooper, a
computer scientist there. “What other schools need to do is take a
serious look at what works for their own environment.”

Despite the success at her own campus, Dr. Klawe continues her crusade
to lift the numbers. She visits other universities and corporations to
give advice on recruiting women to STEM careers — and retaining them.
Often she reminds her audience that for much of her career she felt
like an impostor.

Jennifer Tour Chayes, a friend of Dr. Klawe’s who is managing director
of Microsoft Research New England, in Cambridge, Mass., says that is
an important lesson.

“Women are often questioned, and then they take the impostor syndrome
as their inner voice, as proof they shouldn’t go on,” she said. “What
they need to know is that women like Maria also had that inner voice,
and luckily they went on, and look how they’re doing.”

In spite of unequivocal evidence to the contrary, Dr. Klawe still has
moments when she is convinced she is an impostor.

“If you’re constantly pushing yourself, and putting yourself in new
environments, you’ll feel it over and over again,” she said. “So the
only really important thing is not to let it stop you.”

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