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Bringing More Women Into Computer Science

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It's no secret women students are woefully underrepresented in computer science. There's a fun event coming up doing its part to help change that -- the Windward Code War.

University of Wisconsin Computer Science Professor Joline Morrison said, "We really appreciated that the competition emphasized strategy and problem solving rather than simply coding."

The emphasis on strategy and problem solving has brought a much higher percentage of female participants to the Windward Code War. I have three daughters who are all geeks. But I've found that unlike me, they also like human interaction in their day. The need for a team effort brings in more female students. And makes computer science a more compelling career choice for them.

The percentage of women majoring in Computer Science is at an anemic 12 percent and has been dropping over the last several decades. This is a gigantic problem, both for the women who choose alternatives but would be happier in computer science and for society at large. Computer science is in worse shape than any other STEM major, and yet the future will see computer science jobs growing faster than most any other major. This is a giant problem.

A lot of hackathons tend to not be appealing to many women. They focus on the details instead of the big picture. The result is most female computer science students either avoid the hackathons or find them less than thrilling.

I'd like to say that our code war was purposely designed to appeal to female computer science students. It wasn't. Pure luck that it does. But the important thing is we've created the kind of challenge that female students find fun and interesting. Not just a little bit of fun, but "one of the best days at school ever" fun. And making computer science fun for women students is a giant plus in encouraging more women to major in computer science.

When something works, go with it

Improving the type of challenges in programming competitions, especially those at the high school and freshman level, is key to increasing the number of women going into computer science. Most of the competitions today are almost purposely designed to discourage many women. That needs to change. Here's what I think are the keys to making the competitions welcoming to women:

  1. Present problems that require collaboration and discussion throughout the contest to win. Many contests are won by students who can take a problem and code up a solution in minutes. There is no significant social interaction in this kind of contest, and that's a problem.

  2. Present problems where the solutions from each team directly interact with the solutions from the other teams. This adds a significant new dimension to the level of interaction in the contest as opposed to each solution being individually measured. When you have multiple A.I.s in a game, each written by a team, then those teams are interacting with each other.
  3. Make the result fun. Measuring the fastest code where the result is a number is not fun. Creating an iPad app, a game, a social media widget -- those are fun.
  4. Level the playing field. If the contest winner is the one who can write the tightest code, that's not only uninteresting to most people, it's also a poor measure of how useful someone will be in the real world. If the contest winner is the team that collaborates best and comes up with the best strategy, that is a contest many women will embrace. Because the contest drives social interaction and teamwork.

We can have contests that encourage girls in high school to program. Ones where they have a lot of fun, walk out with a feeling of success, and see programming for what it truly is -- a social endeavor that is part programming, but in large part a group collaborative effort to design something amazing.

And that will lead to more women majoring in computer science.

Code War Live

  • Saturday, Jan. 26 -- 10:00 a.m.: The challenge problem is released. See what the teams must implement in eight hours.
  • Saturday Jan. 26 -- 7:00 p.m.: The scores from each school's semifinal, and the teams going on to the final, are listed.
  • Sunday Jan. 27 -- 10:00 a.m.: The international semifinals and then final will be available live.
  • Note: all times Pacific (California) time.