Diversity issues hold back computer science

November 17, 2017


Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach at the Georgia Tech College of Computing and highly recognized senior research scientist, wanted to pursue a degree in political science when she was in high school. However, one chance computer science class changed the course of her career.


“I had a high school programming course back when we didn’t even have computers in the classroom. We had to dial up to the college next to us,” said Ericson. “If I wouldn't have had that course, I wouldn’t have known anything about it.”


According to national trends, Ericson is one of the few women who follow a computer science career path and, in many ways, it is all thanks to high school exposure. Women who enroll in AP Computer Science in high school are ten times more likely to major in it in college. Yet, there is an increasing gap between the number of men and women enrolled in computer science classes or getting computer science degrees.


This gap is problematic because not enough people are graduating with computer science degrees and computer science is one of the fastest growing job markets. Just eight percent of all science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates are earning computer science degrees. Moreover, according to College Board, students graduating with computer science degrees are overwhelmingly Caucasian or Asian males. 


Experts say the diversity shortfall can be correlated to the shortage of highly educated teachers to inspire students to want to continue in this career path.


"The number of women entering into computer science degrees in college are exponentially lower than men” said Emily Haghighi, the project administrator for the Missouri Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.


The gap grows larger as the years go by and students receive their degrees. The Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System did a study on the number of women per university that graduated with computer science degrees.


Of all of the Missouri colleges and universities they studied, University of Missouri-Kansas City had the highest share of women graduating with computer science degrees at 19 percent. At Missouri State University and the University of Missouri-Saint Louis, only three percent of computer science graduates were female. 


“The image of computer science doesn’t appeal to a lot of women,” said Ericson. “So we also have to convince women that no they also should be in computer science.”


Ericson believes this should start in high school through AP courses. AP exams are one clear indicator of the demographics of students considering entering in college computer science programs. However, only 10 states have computer science standards to provide classes.



“Most places don’t teach it. It’s not available everywhere,” Barbara Ericson said. “Especially not Advanced Placement. ”


Nationally, just over 46,000 students took Advanced Placement computer science exams in 2016 according to information from the College Board. However, over 100,000 people took AP Calculus exams in 2016. Of the 46,000 AP Computer Science exams, just 21 percent were taken by females.


“The Advanced Placement Computer Science exam is one of the most gendered male of any of the Advanced Placement exams,” said Ericson.


A large part of the computer science gender gap has to do with the early inspiration of students, like Ericson,  in high school classes. A study by Harris Interactive found that 68 percent of females said that, before college, a teacher or class got them interested in STEM topics. Many high school computer science teachers undergo a two-week training, which some argue is not enough time to learn the curriculum.


“The biggest problem right now is that we don’t have any pre-service training or very little in the U.S,” Ericson said. “People are getting trained on the job. It would be better if they learned it as their teacher training.”


Ericson believes the minimal teacher training could play a role in the lack of inspiration in computer science education and ultimately, lack of diversity.


“When you have bad teaching, you tend to further discourage the people you most want to attract, so you can discourage females and minorities,” Ericson said.


However, unless one is formally trained in computer science, keeping up with the curriculum can be challenging for teachers because it constantly changes. However, Dr. Prasad Calyam, an assistant professor in the computer science department at the MU, may have a solution.  


“We're trying to get teachers to come embed in research groups and actual training programs,” Calyam said. “It's not like you learn once and you're done, right? There needs to be a follow-up.”


Currently, he is working on a program where computer science teachers can come, be assessed, go back to school, then return to be re-assessed later on. With this program, Missouri teachers will hopefully be able to keep up with the curriculum.


The goal is to get everyone on board to work these high paying and high demand jobs. Moreover, only ten states have computer science standards, so this program is a step toward getting Missouri on track to educating individuals on the subject area of computer science.


“The ultimate effect is that it is very important for everybody. You can make an impact,” Calyam said.

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