Program encourages computer science participation

By Tina Hilding, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture

women-computingPULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University is committing to bringing 150 high school girls to campus annually to specifically introduce them to computer science.

The effort was featured Wednesday as part of the White House Computer Science for All Initiative, which aims to help more students gain access to computer science educational opportunities and learn computational thinking skills.


In the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science , the groups will spend a half day learning from college students with a meet-and-greet, facilities tour, robotics lab activity, overview of computer science club and research activities, panel discussion and mentoring activity, and hands-on programming.

Visitors’ ‘eyes light up’ at fun activities

The program is part of School of EECS efforts to increase interest in the field, especially for groups who haven’t traditionally been represented, and to retain students who enter the major. Industry demand for computer scientists is high, especially in the state of Washington, and continues to grow.

Last year, the school invited a first cohort of high school students from eastern Washington to the university for a day of programming. The school also began offering awards and scholarship opportunities for high school girls in computer science. For many of the students, WSU’s event was their first experience with an interesting, fun and challenging field of study.

“You should have seen their eyes light up when they did the Python programming or the app design activity,” said Shira Broschat, professor in the School of EECS who is leading the efforts. “Some didn’t have any idea what to do at first, but we went around the room and said, ‘Come up with something you like to do.’ And then they were off.”

Once young women decide to study computer science at WSU, the school is also making a concerted effort to keep them in the program. It is working to provide a gathering room for women computer science students. Having a place set aside for women has been shown to help them stay in male-dominated programs.

Mentoring, other support important

At the same time, students in the women’s WSU chapter of Association of Computing Machinery have begun mentoring female students in the program. The club is one of two new groups in the school tailored specifically for women.

The school has begun working with introductory programming course instructors to make classroom and lab environments more supportive for women by, for instance, bringing female students together in lab sessions. Usually, women drop out from computer science and engineering programs because of the lack of support around them, not because they can’t succeed in classes, said Sakire Arslan Ay, assistant director of the School of EECS, who is leading retention efforts.

“The goal is to have junior and senior students help the incoming female students adjust to the program and help them to overcome the obstacles that they might experience during their first year,” said Arslan Ay. “We hope that catching problems early on and providing help to solve them will help retain more females in the program.

“As a female computer scientist, I have experienced the same problems that today’s computer scientists have,” she added. “But, we need women in computer science and engineering; I would like to help the new generation of women become aware of their qualities and not let anything stop them.”