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Getting Wise To The WTO

Getting Wise To The WTOWith a growing gender gap in the computer science field, Tufts is taking an innovative approach to draw more females into the field.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.05.06] In the two decades since the computer science field has gained significant popularity, it has been overwhelmingly dominated by men. While women comprised almost 40 percent of computer science majors at one point in the mid-1980s, The Boston Globe recently reported that the number has been on a steady decline in recent years, raising concerns among industry and higher education leaders alike. But Tufts may be on the forefront of reversing the trend. Through its innovative approach to teaching the subject, Tufts has drawn more women into its computer science classes and attracted the attention of other colleges and universities.

“A number of universities are trying to do something similar to Tufts,” the Sunday Globe recently reported in a front page article. “…The goal is to inspire more students like Katie Seyboth of Tufts. She loved math and science, but had never been interested in computer science before she took, on a whim, one of the school’s introductory classes for people with no previous experience.”

Her choice: Tufts’ introductory computer science seminar, which centers less on computer programming, specifically, and more on the practical uses for computer science. It’s the brainchild of department chair Diane Souvaine, who has been working to attract more women into computer science courses since she arrived at the University in 1998.

Less than a decade later, her efforts have paid dividends at Tufts. (Women now comprise nearly 30 percent of the students in lower level computer sciences courses and the department’s faculty includes more female professors than males.) And other institutions are taking notice.

According to the Globe, MIT will follow Tufts’ lead this spring, with the introduction of two new courses that take an approach similar to Souvaine’s. The National Science Foundation has also gotten involved, and “will soon announce a new set of grants to universities, high schools, and industry groups with creative ideas for attracting women to computer science.”

Back at Tufts, the work continues. Soha Hassoun, an associate professor of computer science, has joined Souvaine in crafting computer science courses that are geared for a broader audience. The key: tackling real-life problems using concepts central to computer science.

While leading her introductory computer science seminar on a recent day, Hassoun challenged her students to think logically about “how to get a computer to determine whether a particular point is inside or outside a geometric shape,” reported the Globe, which sent a reporter to sit in on the class.

''Here's the big question. Why do we care about this?" Hassoun asked her class, according to the Globe. She then linked her question to a future assignment, which will require students to use “that same method [to] help determine which diabetes tests are the best predictors of the disease.”

The approach has made a significant impression on students like Seyboth, who has become a computer science die-hard since taking an introductory course with Souvaine.

Seyboth, who told the Globe that she wants to someday earn a doctorate in computer science, admitted to the newspaper that the early exposure to the field along with Souvaine’s encouragement made all the difference in her decision to pursue this path.

“She believes that if she hadn't taken the ‘welcoming’ introduction, she would have drowned in her next class, which was all programming,” according to the Globe. “If Souvaine hadn't taken her under her wing, she might not have had the courage to drop her chemistry major, she said.”

And it’s students like Seyboth, who was just named a finalist for a national computer science award, that keep Souvaine’s faith in Tufts’ ability to recruit females into the computer science field alive.

''There's nothing better than watching the real potential of students like Katie being unveiled, seeing the joy and excitement they feel and the contributions they make," Souvaine told the newspaper. ''And yet, had just a few things gone differently along the way, they might no longer be in the field."


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