The National Institute for Computational Sciences

Professor: Encouragement and Practical Instruction Can Bridge Gender Gap in Computer Science

by Scott Gibson

Amy McGovern, associate professor in the School of Computer Science and adjunct professor in the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, takes advantage of her influence as an educator to encourage girls and women to pursue their aspirations in computer science and related fields. Brittany Dahl, graduate student in the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, was drawn to the math- and physics-intensive field of meteorology at a young age and is currently completing her master’s thesis as part of a tornado-prediction research team led by Professor Amy McGovern.

Computer and information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy, will experience a 22-percent workforce increase, adding 758,800 new jobs from 2010 to 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But if a persistent trend in the field continues as expected, the talents and vast potential of the female population will remain underrepresented among the candidates vying for the positions.

Indeed, recent data don’t indicate an improvement with respect to the gender gap. Less than 12 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women during the period 2010 to 2011, according to a survey from the Computing Research Association called “Computing Degree and Enrollment Trends.”

Familial and Cultural Influences

Amy McGovern, associate professor in the School of Computer Science and adjunct associate professor in the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma (OU), has both personal and professional experience with the challenges that females face in having academic and professional careers in computing and the sciences.

Our culture, McGovern says, has a strong tendency to dissuade girls from forming ambitions that involve technical fields. She recalls how, as a middle-school student, she and her peers in a class of advanced female students were told by the teacher “girls don’t belong in math.” Today, as an educator herself who not only instructs college students but also coaches a children’s robotics team, McGovern says the gender imbalance starts at the elementary-school level or even before.

She has observed that most of the kids who do take computing will say things like, “My daddy taught me how to do this,” or, “My mommy said girls can’t do math.”

“The really big drop off happens in middle school, where the girls start wanting to conform,” she says. “They like the boys a little bit more, and the boys don’t like brainy girls. And so a lot of those girls disappear out of math and science at that point. It’s really too bad. Also, I think the media don’t help, in that they portray computing as nerdy. What girl wants to be a nerd?”

Encouragement, Role Models and Determination

McGovern’s experience growing up was atypical in that her mother was the first to instruct her in computer programming. The time was the early 1980s, and her mom, a school superintendent, was in charge of buying the computers for the classrooms. She bought Commodore 64s and then took classes in computer repair and BASIC programming. McGovern’s mother taught her to program using BASIC.

Imbued with the spirit from her parents that she could do anything she set her mind to, she also recalls a book that her dad gave her on the theme of being anything you wanted to be. McGovern dreamed of being an astronaut, but had to endure naysayers who remarked that she would never be that, because girls had never flown until physicist and astronaut Sally Ride did.

“After Sally Ride’s success, people said, ‘OK, you can be an astronaut,’” McGovern says. “Now, mind you, I’m not an astronaut, but after Sally went up, people actually saw that girls could do it.”

Clearly, not everyone entering a scientific field can have the effect and influence of a Sally Ride, but being able to make a difference is a significant motivator, especially for young women in an area of study populated mostly by men. McGovern explains that even after success in computer science has carried women to the collegiate level, they are at high risk for dropping out.

As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), McGovern was one of the students social scientist Jane Margolis interviewed for her award-winning book, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (published in 2002), which delves into the gender gap in computer science at the college level. The book is based on interviews with more than 100 computer science students of both sexes from CMU during a four-year period, along with classroom observations and conversations with college and high school faculty.

“I remember that she asked why we had chosen to study computer science; why we wanted to stay in the field; whether we had programmed before, and if so, who had taught us,” McGovern says. “I remember that she told me that I was the only one of the interviewees to have had her mother teach her how to program.”

Making a Difference

Fast forward to 2013. This year, Professor McGovern is teaching freshmen and is engaged in research that combines computer science and meteorology with a goal of revolutionizing tornado prediction.

“A lot of people see computer science as theoretical and not practical,” McGovern says. “Women and minorities want to make a difference. They want to see that what they’re doing has an application to the real world, and my approach to instruction fits into that totally.”

A big part of her method centers on something that impacts everyone’s life: the weather, or, in scientific language, meteorology. Although meteorology is just one of many highly practical, real-world applications of computer science, its effect is self-evident, especially in tornado-prone Oklahoma. The application of computer science in meteorology is a common thread in many of McGovern’s lectures and projects.

“In places like Oklahoma, everyone pays close attention to the weather, because if you don’t, you could easily die,” McGovern says.

The heavy emphasis on computer science and programming equips meteorology and computer science students with a versatile set of marketable computer skills because of the practical projects they complete in class.

OU meteorology graduate student Brittany Dahl, who describes herself as coming from a science-oriented family, knew for many years that she wanted to be a meteorologist before she pursued and completed her undergraduate degree in the field. Dahl is completing her master’s thesis under McGovern’s supervision in the National Science Foundation-funded research project officially titled, “Developing Spatiotemporal Relational Models to Anticipate Tornado Formation.”

Dahl says that when she was completing her bachelor’s degree in meteorology, females made up less than half her graduating class but that the representation of women in the field is definitely better than it used to be. She adds that this major at OU typically has nearly a 75-percent attrition rate, and the curriculum is mathematics and physics intensive.

“I believe the number of women in meteorology programs is around 30 percent to 40 percent,” McGovern adds. “The graduate student population tends to go down a little bit from the undergraduate population, because some of the undergraduate meteorologists want to be in broadcasting.”

Outreach and Influence

While meteorology represents one of the practical areas serving to bridge the computing gender gap, it’s not, of course, one-and-the-same with computer science. As McGovern points out, and the statistics clearly show, much work remains to be done to raise the female population in the computer science field.

McGovern’s undergraduate alma mater, CMU, has been a long-time leader in effecting change. From 1995 to 2000, for example, the percentage of women entering the School of Computer Science (SCS) at CMU climbed from 7 percent to 42 percent. Today, the school’s women @ scs Web site is an example of how the school reaches out to females, with information, workshops mentoring programs and conferences.

In her leadership role, McGovern takes every opportunity to encourage females to pursue computer science.

“You’ll never be broke and you’ll never be bored in this field,” McGovern says. “It’s lots of fun. Stick to it. Stay at it. You can apply computing to change the world in many different ways.”