Is Teaching Computer Science Different from Teaching Other Sciences?

Danielle R. Bernstein

Mathematics/Computer Science Dept.
Kean University, Union, New Jersey 07083

Presented at the 13th Annual Eastern Small College Computing Conference, Pomona, NJ, October, 1997.


The University of Wisconsin (UW) Women and Science program is a four- year program aimed at addressing the underrepresentation of women and minorities in mathematics, science and engineering. Funded by an eight- semester long National Science Foundation grant (Science, Diversity and Community, 1994), the program seeks to reverse this attrition from the sciences at a point where it is most acute: the introductory courses in the undergraduate science curriculum.

As the only Distinguished Visiting Professor (DVP) in computer science, I appreciated the problems common to all sciences but also understood the special demands of the computing major. This paper discusses these challenges in computing, encourages computing faculty to share these concerns with students and offers some solutions.


How do we attract and retain women in mathematics and the sciences? These fields result in good, attractive, high-paying jobs, yet women drop out of every bend of the pipeline. The causes for the low numbers of women in the sciences, including mathematics and computer science, have been documented extensively. These range from lack of parental support, emphasis on toys for the boys to teachers who don't ask women challenging questions. As university faculty, we often feel that we inherit many problems from the high schools and society. However, the starting point for the University of Wisconsin (UW) Women and Science program is the introductory science courses.

The goal of the Women and Science program is to attract and retain qualified female and minority students in the sciences by working on the introductory courses: content, climate and pedagogy. This program seeks to reach students, who, though qualified to do science, choose another major. Since the innovations known to be effective with women and people of color have also attracted other students, the project should gradually increase the total number of students majoring in the sciences.

During the four years of the Women and Science program, seven faculty members from various scientific disciplines were invited to spend a term on a UW campus as a Distinguished Visiting Professors (DVP). As part of our responsibilities, we taught an introductory course in our discipline and gave seminars to share our innovations in the classroom in content, pedagogy and classroom climate with other science faculty.

I was excited to be asked to work with resident Faculty Fellows at the UW-Stevens Point (UW-SP) campus. Stevens Point is a small town, 110 miles north of Madison, the capital of Wisconsin. The campus is a comprehensive university, emphasizing undergraduate education. On the surface, UW-SP seems worlds apart from Kean University, my homebase in urban New Jersey, 25 miles from New York City. But my experience of working with UW-SP students convinced me differently. Students in both areas want the same things: to study hard, to get good grades so that they can get a good job and make a good living.

While leading workshops on methods to attract and retain women in the sciences, I came to understand that teaching the introductory computing course has its unique challenges. The following discussion examines these challenges in the computing field, encourages faculty to share these concerns with students and offers some solutions.


At a time when the world seems to be run by computers and Computer Engineers and Computer System Analysts are the two highest growth professions (Marable, 1995), the percentage of women majoring in computer science is going down. It reached a high of almost 39% in 1986 and is now less than 20%. At the same time, women are more than 50% of the college graduates and more than 44% of the science and engineering graduates (From the National Center for Education Statistics).

Why are we losing women in computing? The "tools vs. toys" approach to computing has been documented widely from Sherry Turkle's The Second Self (1984) to popular articles (Kantrowitz, 1994). Men look at computers as toys, women as tools. Men want to play with computers but women want to do something useful with them. With computers, "it's always something, and it's always something new." Games, programming, electronic mail and now the World Wide Web. These time consuming, captivating applications encourage focused and obsessive behavior, a trait not encouraged in women.

By the time students enter college, many have already weeded themselves out of majoring in computing. Nevertheless, those who do come into the field enter with a great disparity of knowledge. Some students have been around computers ever since they can remember and others only know what they have learned in school. Even though there is a difference between school computing and personal computing, so much is learned outside the classroom. In Hale (1995), Ellen Spertus at Microsoft notes that "it used to be that no one entered college with any knowledge of computers so everyone was on an equal footing. Now boys have more hands-on experience and women know it."

At UW-SP, CIS 110, Algorithm Development and Computer Programming I, is the first term computing course for those aiming to be Computing and Information Systems (CIS) majors and is required by many other fields. Less than a third of the students declared themselves as CIS majors and only one third were women.

We surveyed the students in all sections, at the beginning and end of the term. We asked them to rate themselves on their comfort levels with PCs, their knowledge of software packages and programming. We also encouraged them to amplify on their answers. We will look at four special challenges of computing and discuss specific techniques developed to overcome these obstacles.

1. Hidden Prerequisites

Klawe and Levenson (1995) point out that "as freshman courses begin to assume extensive computer experience in those who take them, women and others without this experience will be at a significant disadvantage and may become discouraged."

The course catalog states that are no prerequisites for CIS 110. But do we really mean it? What software, concepts or equipment do we expect our students to feel comfortable with? One female CIS major explains her high comfort level as "I use a PC every day, so for most applications, I enjoy working on the PC."

One woman, a CIS major, cheerfully characterized herself as "starting from scratch and going strong." Yet, after several weeks, some students were still looking for certain control keys on the keyboard. Others were befuddled by the differences between the computers in the lab and their computer at home.

But computing is more than a set of skills; it is a culture (Bernstein, 1997). Computing is a whole alphabet soup of acronyms and buzzwords. At a workshop on Men, Women and Computing, I asked:

What computing buzzwords do we expect students to know? At what level? And where are they expected to learn them?

The last question stumped most workshop participants. The most common answer was "other people," that is, other students who are passionate about computing and hang around computing labs. One student said that they were expected to learn these buzzwords in FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) section of news groups on the Internet. But then he realized that FAQ was itself a buzzword. So where are students expected to learn that term? And how does one learn to get onto the Internet in the first place?

While I was at UW-SP, a new course, Information Tools, was added to the CIS curriculum. In the new curriculum, this will now be the first computing course for majors, before they are introduced to program design. The purpose of this course is to attempt to level out the playing field between entering students in computing. Though curriculum issues had been discussed in the department for two years, they were settled while the department participated in the Women and Science program. At that time, everyone's sensitivity was heightened by the great disparity of knowledge between new students and by the hidden prerequisites of our current first computing course.

2. Computer Ownership

At most universities, we do not expect students to purchase a personal computer. But at the beginning of the term, almost 50% of the students said that they owned a computer. Yet, if we probed a little further, we found a great variation in equipment. Some were state-of-the-art machines but others had been primarily bought for games and word processing.

In addition, many women had access to a computer at home, but did not control it. Their brothers or fathers owned the machine. The women students just used it but did not go outside the boundaries of the software they had been shown. Some did not even know what word processing system they were using, just that "that's how I write my papers."

The greatest predictor of success with computers is prior exposure: mucking about, playing around, experimenting (Bernstein, 1991). If students have their own computer and control their computing environment, they will have a great advantage in computing courses.

3. Computing is a Time-consuming Subject.

Some students realize that computing eats up time. This can be a great pleasure or a great detriment. A woman, a CIS major, explained her high comfort level with computers:

My family and I have one. We've had one since I was 12 years old. I could live in the computer lab 24 hours a day at school. I enjoy using one: I use one for almost everything I do (papers, projects, etc.)

But another female CIS major, with a lower comfort level on PCs, had difficulty finding the time to use the computer lab. She wrote on her end- of-course questionnaire, "I'm not able to use the system often except for our 2-hour lab on Wednesday."

Some textbook writers encourage the mesmerizing quality of computing. On the back cover of a first year computing book, Oh! Pascal, the author, Doug Cooper writes:

The basic premises I work with are that programming should be fun right from the start, and that even beginners can learn to write programs that are at least as good as those you'd buy in a store. During the past year, I lay awake nights trying to figure out ways to keep you awake nights. As a result, this book does not contain even a single problem that involves widgets, payrolls, grading homework or companies like Acme . . .

This approach leads to many contextless programming examples, tricks and "screen hacks." Maybe, as a rebuttal to this approach, Horstmann (1997) promises on its cover that his C++ book is "not a significant source of low-level pointer hacks."

However, stereotypical, nerdy behavior is encouraged as the way to success in the computing world. From Edupage, an electronic clipping service on Information Technology news,

Sun CEO Scott McNealy sees using Sun's HotJava program to distribute free software over the Internet. The free software would be developed at universities in exchange for donated equipment. McNealy sees hundreds of "20- year-olds in computer science labs, working all night on Jolt Cola and Twinkies, who would be thrilled to death to create a better word processor than Word and make it available for free. (Financial Times 7/17/95 p.9)

Doing research with mathematics students, Lynn and Hyde (1989) found that "females may be more likely than males to use techniques they learned in school". They observed that "confident students are more likely to try alternative approaches for problem solutions, to experiment with techniques not taught in class rather than carefully following school procedures and persist with mathematics and science courses".

These findings are very applicable to computing. In computing, much of that confidence is obtained by just sitting in front of the computer and experimenting without, as one male student voiced, "causing major damage to the system." Computing can be time consuming and all consuming. But we should not forget the exhilaration factor of computing. When things work, there is tremendous satisfaction.

4. Computing Labs. Open labs/Closed labs . . . Frustrating labs

Computer centers in all organizations operate as gatekeepers. They decide how users will interact with the central computer system. University computer centers are no different in that they require users to have user ids, passwords and to follow instructions precisely in order to use the system. Lips et al. (1993) note that,

Elite image of computing is often fostered knowingly or unknowingly by institutional computer services dept. which dole out information to users in a miserly fashion and make frequent and arbitrary changes to the system so that users never feel quite comfortable with their skills.

As one woman student put it, "The (computer center) system is complex and not well explained to beginning users."

Lab problems are particularly prevalent at the beginning of the semester. Instructors know this occurs every term and try to keep a sense of perspective about it. However students "pass this way but once." It seems that it takes days to get a user id. Passwords that were accepted yesterday mysteriously deny access to the system today. Some electronic mail systems need yet another password but will still lose messages.

All organizations have these problems. But some students lose patience, especially if this is their first year in college. They perceive that everyone else is on the system but them. They regard dealing with the computer center as another piece of red tape. But unlike registration and paying tuition, this red tape can be avoided by dropping out of computing courses and not using the computer system.

Even students who have worked with computers for a long time may not have used a networked system. A stand alone system might be simpler. A woman wrote on her end-of course survey. "I've worked with computers almost all my life . . . (But) the system took some getting used to."

With the general acceptance of friendly Windows and menu systems, users see everything that is available to them. Older command driven systems may have been complex but shielded beginners from seeing all the software available on the system. Some students get overwhelmed by the icons and choices. But other understand that they do not have to become experts on every piece of software on the system. One man, with a high comfort level, wrote: "I understand the parts that I use, but the other parts are very unfamiliar."

  1. At the beginning of the first computing course for majors, state that there are no prerequisites to the course. Assume that students know nothing coming into the course.

  2. Consider adding a new, beginning course to the CIS curriculum on Information Tools. Such a course, concentrating on tools before programming, might level out the playing field between entering students in computing.

  3. Survey the class on their perceived knowledge of various computing subjects. Share the results of the survey, as soon as possible at the beginning of the term. This might allay fears by some students that everyone knows more than they do. Surveying also allowed us to approach the undecided majors on the virtues of becoming a computing major. Undecided students are our opportunities to increase the number of majors.

  4. Explicitly teach how to get onto the Internet, use electronic mail and the World Wide Web. Do not assume that students will learn through the grapevine.

  5. Don't forget the needs of the advanced students. Introduce them to each other. Suggest more challenging work that they can explore.

  6. Discuss the time-consuming aspect of computing with students. Acknowledge that they have chosen a course and a major which take a lot of time.

  7. Do not give homework problems where the people who spend the most time in front of the computer get the best grades. For example, beginning students sometimes spend hours working on their computer output by adding graphic designs and bold, underlined and blinking text. Unless that is the point of the assignment, it should not result in a better mark.

  8. In class, discuss problems with the computer center. However, though one should be sympathetic to the students' problems, try to encourage assertiveness when they deal with the Computer Center. When is it the students' problems and when is it the Computer Center's problem? And how can they tell the difference?

  9. Explain to students that they do not have to become experts on all the software applications they see.
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Last Updated on March 13, 2001