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Geek Chic

A recent article in the New York Times In 'Geek Chic' and Obama, New Hope for Lifting Women in Science offered hope that the new administration would act on efforts to attract and retain more women in science. Though the author fails to consider race in her discussion, I believe this is also a prime opportunity to attract more ethnically diverse scientists in the U.S.

The article queries why women are equally represented in many scientific fields (mathematics, biology, chemistry) but are missing in physics, particularly at the college level. We can extend this same question for computer science. Why, compared to other scientific disciplines, are females and students of color missing from computer science classrooms? Studies show that girls have equal performance to boys on standardized mathematics tests, squashing any hypotheses about differences in aptitudes. So, what is it about the nature of physics and computer science that seems to repel all but a few girls and women?

The author suggests that perhaps the abstract, cold nature of physics turns off women (a complaint of many in computer science, too). Both fields have undergone significant developments under the auspices of warfare. Though today's applications of physics and computer science benefit humanity in sweeping ways, these applications are not visible in public perception. Nor are they typically highlighted in introductory courses.

When conducting research for our new book, Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, I spoke with dozens of high-performing Latina mathematics 12th graders. Many had taken computer science courses. Though many of these girls were on their way to college to study math or science, none were interested in pursuing computer science. When asked why, they expressed a desire to major in a field which would allow them to improve their community. These young girls were unable to imagine how obtaining expertise in computer science could possibly benefit their desire to change lives for the better.

As computer science educators, we should try to make explicit connections between computer science and solving local problems. Moving away from the public perception of computer science as cold and abstract requires engaging pedagogy and more active participation of students. Perhaps then we will be able to attract a more heterogeneous "geek chic" image of computer science.

Joanna Goode
CSTA Equity Chair

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