Want more diversity in STEM?

(See original eCampus News article)

STEM advocate discusses how leading institutions are addressing isolation within courses

This week, during Computer Science Education Week, as educators and administrators discuss ways to attract more students—women and minorities especially—to study computer science, remember that it’s not enough to simply encourage under-represented groups to take their first STEM classes.

Educators must recognize that they play a major role in keeping these students engaged and supported throughout their academic careers. Traditional class structures can perpetuate feelings of isolation.  Attracting women and minorities to computer science is one thing; keeping them there and easing their path to graduation (and beyond) is a separate thing altogether.

It was the late 1990’s, and I was one of only three women in the undergraduate computer science program at IIT Kanpur. I spent many nights alone in the computer lab, struggling to complete challenging programming assignments, watching longingly as my male classmates huddled together across the room, asking and answering each other’s questions and working collaboratively to master the complex material.

After attending an all-girls high school in India, I was far too shy to speak to my male peers, much less ask for entrance into their all-male study circles.

After graduation, I moved to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree, and I landed software development jobs at selective firms, including Oracle and Facebook. I came to the U.S. assuming that the social learning challenge I faced in India was unique.

I was shocked to hear time and again from my U.S.-educated female classmates and colleagues that my experience was not at all unique. Sure, most U.S.-educated female college students know how to talk to boys, but many also felt intense isolation in their STEM classes and especially in their computer science classes.

Computer science classes are highly collaborative, or rather they should be. It’s tough to master computer science material without collaborating with others. And it’s tough to collaborate with others when you look and feel so different from your peers. We see this in studies of women leaving STEM careers: isolation is a key “antigen” leading women to leave. That isolation persists in the corporate world, but begins much earlier during the K-12 years and builds during college. [Learn more about Computer Science Education Week]

What are some techniques professors can use to mitigate feelings of isolation among women and minorities in their STEM classes? Hopefully many academics will explore this very topic, but here are five starting tips I’ve found along the way:

1. Modify the lecture. Make learning active.

A recent study from the University of North Carolina and the University of Washington has shown that modifying course structures beyond the traditional lecture format can significantly improve student outcomes for some under-represented groups, and specifically for black and first-generation students taking biology courses. Their study implemented course structures that encouraged ongoing study and skills practice and collaboration, or active learning, while decreasing the reliance of material from lectures, or passive, solitary learning. The result: the achievement gap between black students and their white and Asian peers was almost halved, and the gap between first-generation students and their white and Asian peers was almost eliminated.

2. Assign project groups.

Research has found that small group work can help create a more collaborative and comfortable environment for learning, but students who feel different, as I did as an undergraduate, won’t always have an easy time finding project teammates. Allowing students to self-select their project groups is akin to allowing the popular jocks to self-select their dodgeball teammates: the non-jocks will be isolated and then pummeled. If you allow students to choose their teammates, they will choose students like themselves, so choose for them—at least some of the time.

3. Segment based on experience.

Harvey Mudd College has managed to bridge the gender divide in computer science through a variety of methods, including the segmenting of introductory computer science courses by previous experience. The experts take classes together, and the newbies take classes together. Women and minorities, who might otherwise have felt isolated in classes filled with white and Asian men who have been programming since childhood, know they’re learning in a safe environment filled with peers whose experience levels are comparable to theirs.

4. Use technology.

A number of technologies are emerging to help instructors create more collaborative and active learning environments for students. Blended classroom environments, when implemented well, can reach new segments of students. My own company, Piazza, creates a collaborative learning environment, and the numbers show that it works: students are highly engaged, spending on average three hours per day on the platform. More tellingly, women are equally engaged and, in fact, ask more questions than men. Jeff Offutt, a software engineering professor at George Mason University, reported that changing his small class from an in-person to an online format actually doubled participation rates and encouraged shy students to actively engage, because doing so online felt more comfortable than speaking up in an all-male or mostly-male in-person environment.

5. Shine a light at the end of the tunnel.

My company recently hosted a Silicon Valley Tech Tour for top female computer science majors and found many of these students, even those attending elite schools, have limited visibility into the full breadth of job opportunities available for computer science graduates. College career services departments, as well as potential employers, could do a better job of educating students about job options beyond programming, from project management to product management, which draw on technical knowledge but also tap into social and collaborative skills in a way that programming jobs sometimes but don’t always do. Learning about the full range of job opportunities, as well as mentorship programs which connect students to professionals, and networking events like the Grace Hopper Celebration, can all help shine a light at the end of the tunnel during long, intense and sometimes lonely days of study.

Pooja Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza, the social learning and recruiting platform for students. She was born in India, lived in North America for 10 years, then moved back to rural India where she lived a traditional life — one which did not involve socializing with boys. Then she arrived at IIT to study computer science and found that almost everyone else was a boy. The genesis for Piazza and Pooja’s passion for social learning came from her desire for a safe space for collaboration with her classmates. Fortunately, she learned how to study with others and went on to graduate from IIT, gain a master’s from UMD, and work at Oracle, Kosmix, and Facebook. Pooja started Piazza while studying for her MBA at Stanford, where she failed a class in entrepreneurship because she was too busy running the business.