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What's Different About Boys' and Girls' Interest in Computing?

By Dan Lewis

Today's college-bound students have grown up immersed in the technology of computing, and what interests them is no longer the same as what attracted previous generations to computing. For them, computers have become an appliance and the Web is their new communication medium. So why should we expect that learning how to put hello world on the screen would motivate students who are used to computer games and Web pages filled with images, animations and other forms of multimedia?

University computer curricula are changing in response, but most still fail to attract girls to the discipline. A recent WGBH/ACM report found that instead of being intrigued by how computers work, today's students (especially the girls) are much more interested in "social interaction" and "making a difference in peoples' lives".

Fig. 1 - Student Interests.jpg

At a recent Preview Day, the Computer Engineering Department at Santa Clara University surveyed students who had been admitted for the fall of 2010 regarding their interests in computing. The results in Figure 1 highlight several key differences between the male and female students who attended the event. As anticipated, robotics, game design and computer hardware design were of greater interest to males, while females were more concerned with how computing can be used to benefit society. But what was not expected was how significant a factor gender is relative to interest in how the Web works and in the use of computers in graphic arts.

Fig. 2 - Applications.jpg

These differences are also reflected in our admission statistics. Last fall the department introduced a new degree program in Web Design and Engineering that combines the Web technologies of content creation and content delivery with Web-related courses from the fields of graphic arts, communication, sociology and applied ethics. As shown in Figure 2, this interdisciplinary approach has attracted a significantly greater percentage of women who (to our delight) also happen to have the highest SAT scores and high school grade point averages of all students who will join the department this coming fall.

New Image for Computing, WGBH Educational Foundation and the Association for Computing Machinery, April 2009. See http://www.acm.org/membership/NIC.pdf.

Dan Lewis
Santa Clara University


I'm a woman and I agree that computing can get really... *yawn*. Haha Even though I'm in the industry... i still give it a 6 over 10. =))

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