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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 6 | Jun. 5, 2003

Where the Girls Aren’t

New interdisciplinary course aims to boost female interest in computer science

By Erica Smishek

A typical girl loves her computer -- but she doesn’t understand how it works and isn’t dreaming of a career in information technology.

That could change if Women’s Studies Programme chair Tineke Hellwig and Computer Science Prof. Anne Condon have their way.

The pioneering pair has banded together to establish Connecting with Computer Science, a new UBC course they believe is the only one of its kind anywhere. Cross-listed in both the Faculties of Arts and Science beginning this fall, the hands-on course introduces computer science through connections with fine arts, linguistics, music, philosophy, psychology, biology and women’s studies.

By emphasizing the use of computer tools as a means of creativity and human expression and the role computer science plays in addressing basic questions about human intelligence and the mechanisms of life, Hellwig and Condon hope to widen women’s interest in and access to the field.

“It is pushing the envelope a lot further than any other course of its type,” says Condon. “It is very rare to find this highly interdisciplinary approach.

“This is not a course about computers in society and it’s not about social issues. It is a technical course… This is designed to help get at programming, at what it means, at why it’s important.”

Lagging interest in technology among high school girls has translated into an alarming decline in women studying computing at university. Currently only 15-20 per cent of IT graduates at Canadian universities and fewer than 25 per cent of IT professionals in the work force are women.

The course (listed as 101 in Computer Science and 201 in Women’s Studies) is designed to capture the attention of people who might not otherwise think about computers, and to do so at the beginning, rather than the end, of their university studies.

“It will show up on the radar screen of students who would otherwise lock themselves away because they think it’s science and it’s nothing they can do,” says Hellwig.

Condon did substantial research on feminist approaches to science and feminist conceptualization when developing the course. Programming assignments are designed to allow students to explore the connection between programming and creativity and to support different styles and approaches to programming instead of requiring the “right answer.”

Students, for example, can write a program to generate haiku poetry or to share their problems and intelligent conversation with a software psychotherapist.

“Programming is quite a skill and art,” says Condon, a mathematician. “It’s very complicated, and it’s difficult to be a great programmer. Everything has to be exactly right. There is a tendency to teach students to do everything right and to teach in a very rigid framework.

“But that’s not the way it works for everyone to learn. There is no reason you can’t learn programming by exploring and by leaving room for creativity. There is precision but there is also creativity.”

Condon addresses the issue of gender differences in people’s approach to computer use early in the course. While both girls and boys enjoy computer games, the level of intensity with which they typically pursue this is different, with boys more likely to get into programming their own games. Also, girls use computers more for other goals -- to communicate over the Internet or to get information about their interests.

“Girls will manage what’s provided but they don’t create new things,” she explains. “It rarely becomes a passion in itself. But for boys it’s an end in itself. For some boys, the computer lab is their social club. Many boys will know how to program by the time they get to computer science class.”

She says she has trouble admitting this contrast.

“As a woman, I want to pretend there are no differences. If we’re different, it could be interpreted to mean we’re not as good. Women in computer science want to fit in, to downplay any differences from the men. But differences between girls’ and boys’ approaches to computers are partly cultural and it’s an influence all the way through their education. It’s something we have to acknowledge but it’s difficult for someone in the sciences to do.”

Both women believe building female competence and confidence with technology is essential to our culture.

“Computers aren’t used for all the things they could be,” says Condon. “If more women are involved, technology will be used differently. The possibilities are endless and could be very inspiring.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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