Friday, December 11, 2009


A friend of mine just e-mailed me a link to two articles about women in computer science (thanks Jack!) which I thought were interesting and I thought that I would share.

The first article is about a psychology researcher, Professor Sapna Cheryan who did her PhD at Standford and is now a professor of psychology at University of Washington. She is looking into computer science stereotypes and how they affects women's and men's interest in computer science. Professor Cheryan sets up two computer science classrooms - one which is filled with stereotypically geeky things like Star Wars posters, computer parts lying on the floor, cans of soda all over the table, and Star Trek figurines; and another which is filled with items that are not associated with the "geek" stereotype such as water bottles, neutral abstract art posters, and potted plants. She brings subjects in and asks them to rate their interest in computer science.

Cheryan [...] has placed students in situations like this for nearly five years. She has found that women rate themselves as less interested in computer science than men in the “geek room” described above. But in a room decorated more neutrally with art posters, nature photos, and water bottles, their interest levels were about the same.

The article goes on to describe Cheryan's explanation of why there is such a difference in interest levels between men and women when placed in these situations:

Women don't identify with the archetypal image of computer scientists. Cheryan's subjects describe this image as “nerdy, techie, stay up late coding, energy drinks, no social life.… They don't frequently take showers.” The geek room conjures this picture in our minds, Cheryan says, based only on the stuff we find lying around.

Now Cheryan has moved to virtual classrooms which allows more control over the environment and has allowed her to place avatars in seats in the classroom or a teacher. Going back to this theme of "seeing people like you" - Cheryan can place all women in the seats or put a female teacher in the front of the virtual classroom to see if these things change interest levels.

The virtual classrooms have been put into all sorts of configurations with different avatars or no avatars. Students were again asked about interest in computer science and also about which room had a more masculine vibe. Cheryan found the following:

Every time they changed the study, the results were the same: Most women avoided the geek space. When prompted, many said it gave them a masculine vibe. The more masculine they found the room, the less they liked it.

Very interesting article!

The second article was much shorter and focused on "pair programming." The studies conducted seem to based on a gender differences model - that pair programming would make programming a more social activity and thus attract more women. However, the findings were that pair programming helps retention regardless of gender.

“I thought it would give a boost to women, but the results were gender-neutral,” McDowell says. “It helped everybody.”

Students were paired in some introductory programming classes and not paired in others. Students who were paired were supposed to complete homework assignments as a pair, but do exams solo and students in the other class did everything alone. The findings were pretty drastic:

A year later, 59 percent of the paired female students were still computer science majors, compared with 22 percent of the women who programmed solo. The results were striking for men as well: the department retained 74 percent of male pair programmers, versus 47 percent of lone coders.

Again, these studies show that a gender differences model is not acceptable for explaining women's low enrollment in computer science - the first article shows that it is clearly a cultural thing. The second article shows that the social aspect of computer science appeals to both men and women despite researchers belief that it would only boost women's retention.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


If there's one thing that almost every one of my friends have in common it's that they read some form of webcomic on the Internet. At some point the funnies were translated into online format and have since exploded. I still remember back when Penny-Arcade was the only real webcomic online but they have now grown quite numerous and cross many genres. It used to be another way to gleam humor out of video games but now you can find web comics on everything from tech news to history.

It was by chance that a friend linked me to a paper that explored webcomics from a different perspective than any I had previously been acquainted. Specifically, Tatalovic in his article "Science comics as tools for science education and communication: a brief, exploratory study" examines the multitude of ways that this genre of webcomic that has exploded in the past 10 years has increased the way we discuss and perceive science. It wasn't until this was made salient that I became aware of how often I learn some new scientific concept through the reading of a comic. Moreover, I get a sense of accomplishment from "getting" some nerdy joke in some comic that I can then explain to friends who may not be as familiar with some of the concepts.

So where does computer science fit in? Tatalovic spends the majority of the paper addressing specifically educational comics and how they spur communication but the humor comics that evoke conversation through science references still receive mention. Unfortunately a search for computer science comics comes up relatively dry. I'm not aware of any real paper computer science comics and the webcomic world is significantly dry minus XKCD. While XKCD hits computer science topics fairly regularly and is notably popular around the CMU computer science department, someone unfamiliar with computer science may not immediately recognize XKCD as having anything to do with computer science, especially considering the author describes his background as physics, not CS.

This leaves me with some questions I'm going to take into further exploration of the undergrad culture. I'm continually interested in the role models that people take and who they identify as computer scientists. Given the recent popularity of webcomics, I wonder if XKCD has transformed or introduced any budding computer scientists to the field and what role these comics have as a medium. I remember a long time ago discussing with some people getting a Numb3rs like tv show on the air to introduce computer science and do for CS what CSI has done for law enforcement. Maybe we don't need a tv show though, maybe we just need a really sweet computer science comic?