Computing, Diversity and Community: Fostering the Computing Culture

Danielle R. Bernstein

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

Presented at the 28th SIGCSE Conference, San Jose, CA, February, 1997.


How do we attract and retain women in mathematics and science and specifically in computing? Women drop out of every bend of the pipeline and thus lose the opportunity to seek good, appealing and high-paying jobs. Funded by an eight-semester long National Science Foundation grant , the University of Wisconsin (UW) Women and Science program aims to reverse this attrition from the sciences at a point where it is most acute: the introductory courses in the undergraduate science curriculum.

This paper focusses on one particular innovation in the computing curriculum: extending the content of a traditional first term computer science course in program design and development to include the culture of computing. The paper gives specific examples of computing artifacts and their uses in any computing classroom. It also shows the connection between teaching the culture of computing and the objectives of the Women and Science project.

The Women and Science Program

The University of Wisconsin Women and Science program aims to reverse female and minority attrition from the sciences by changing the content, pedagogical techniques and classroom climate of the introductory courses in the undergraduate science curriculum. 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.

As a Distinguished Visiting Professor, I spent a term at the Stevens Point campus of the University of Wisconsin and worked with resident Faculty Fellows in a "trainer of trainer" faculty development model. The Faculty Fellows and I each taught a section of the introductory course in Computing (CIS1) and shared our innovations in the classroom with other science faculty at the university.


What do Sneakers, the Internet, Cliff Stoll, Sherry Turkle, Bill Gates and The Net have in common? They are part of the computing culture where culture is defined as the patterns, traits, products and artifacts of a particular period, class or population. In CIS1, in addition to teaching "fundamental computing concepts and structured programming using a higher level language," I introduced the class to the computing and information systems issues of the day, i.e., the culture of computing.

Computing is not just a set of skills; it is also a culture. At every level, students must be exposed to more than just the technical facts and techniques of a discipline. They must feel, think and act, not just like computing students, but like computing professionals. Teaching the culture of a field is not just necessary in computing. All fields have a culture, a set of norms, a non academic literature found in popular magazines, newspaper columns, best-selling books, movies, TV and even jokes. But the problem appears to be more acute in computer science where personal and academic computing tend to merge. In particular, computing is different from other majors in that so much of it is learned outside the formal classroom setting.

Computing is a whole alphabet soup of acronyms and buzzwords. Buzzwords and acronyms can make people feel either like they belong or like outsiders. In a new situation or place, you find new and idiosyncratic buzzwords thrown at you. But students will very rarely raise their hand in class and ask "What does that mean?" A few conscientious students might write down the unknown terms and promise themselves that they will look them up. But where can they even do that?

At a workshop, I asked:

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

The second question stumped most workshop participants, both faculty and students. The most common answer was "other people," that is, other people 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.

Computing Culture and the Women and Science Project

Students, coming into computing, 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. This has important implications for attracting women into computing. 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."

The greatest predictor of success with computers is prior exposure: mucking about and experimenting (Bernstein, 1991). But women as a group are more likely to do only what is required in class (Linn and Hyde, 1989). Similarly, Arch and Cummings (1989) found that

Women at the college level when left to their own devices are simply less willing than males to take advantage of available opportunities for acquiring computers skills and as a consequence fall even further behind . . . Where exposure to computers is not formally structured into coursework, females use the machine less and feel less positive about them.

In computing, it is mostly the men who read magazines, browse the Web and play games. Explicitly exposing all students to the computing culture levels the playing field and provides opportunities to explore more humanized and contextualized aspect of computing. The next section discusses specific computing artifacts.

Computing Artifacts

Cultural artifacts are products of a civilization. Trying to catalog all computing artifacts can be overwhelming and counterproductive. A detailed but selective list of computing artifacts, which is consistently being updated, can be found on These include:

Using an Artifact in the Classroom

Informal and formal class discussions can be centered around computing artifacts. The discussions can be led by the instructor or students. Book reviews are good assignments for Writing Emphasis courses. Joining E-mail lists and participating in conversations increase students' confidence in the freewheeling give and take of computer communication.

Computing culture can be a component of every Computing course. In CIS1, I require students to be comfortable with:

Suggestions on Incorporating the Computing Culture in any Computing Course

There is an overwhelming amount of information, gossip and recycled hearsay on computing in the non academic media. One of my colleagues asked. "How do you get the time to do it all? I don't have time to cover the material I already teach." Here are some hints:

  1. Start students slowly with one E-mail list or one magazine. It is easy to overwhelm both yourself and the class.
  2. Evaluate everything. In particular, check the E-mail lists and Web addresses to ensure that they are still valid. I read, look up and watch everything I recommend. Periodically, I browse through the computing section of bookstores. Over the years, I take out dated books but leave in the classics.
  3. Tell students what you expect them to get out of the artifact and what they are supposed to do with it. I rarely test students on this material, preferring to emphasize class discussions and writing.
  4. Not everything works. Some material goes over the students' heads or is culturally specific. Students may not find the jokes and ads as relevant or funny as you do. But this should not really worry you. You don't have to protect students; you have to expose them.
  5. Choose the artifacts with your interests in mind. This shows students that instructors have pastimes and concerns beyond the technical aspects of computing.
  6. Emphasize the connections between topics. Recently, the telecommunication bill and pornography on the internet were topics of great interest in class. This sparked the more general discussion: what areas should Congress legislate and what should be hands off?

By the end of the term, student response to including the computing culture was overwhelmingly positive. They mention various artifacts as highlights of the course. Some admit that they did not feel this way at the beginning of the semester.

At first, many students are not comfortable with discussing items relating to the culture of computing. They cannot connect one point with another or may find it boring. Then like pieces of a puzzle, things start to fit together. Buzzwords that were discussed in class, an item on the evening news and a lead story in a weekly newsmagazine are all about the same issue. They accept that understanding computing issues is an important part of becoming a computing professional. Then students start to be on the lookout for new material and drive the class discussion. And that's when we know we have succeeded.

  1. Arch, E. and Cummins, D. Structured and unstructured exposure to computers: Sex differences in attitude and use among college students. Sex Roles, 20(5/6), 1989, 245-253.
  2. Bernstein, D. Comfort and experience with computing: Are they the same for women and men? SIGCSE Bulletin (Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education of the ACM), 23(3), 1991, 57-60.
  3. Hale, E. Gender Gap Greater in Computer Training." The Courier-News, 26, February 1995, G4-G5.
  4. Linn, M. and Hyde, J. Gender, mathematics, and science. Educational Researcher, 18(8) 1989, 17-19, 22-27.
  5. Marable, L. The fifty hottest jobs in America. Money Magazine, March, 1995, 114- 117.
  6. Science, Diversity, and Community: Revitalizing Introductory Curricula. Division of Undergraduate Education, National Science Foundation. Grant No. 9156056/9354521.

  7. The Top Growth Jobs in the next five years (Condensed) In growth order
    Occupations              Salary   Percentage
    Computer Engineer        70,000         112
    Computer System Analyst  53,000         110
    Physical Therapist       49,000          88
    Teacher, Special Ed      33,644          75
         . . .
    Teacher(Preschool/Kind.) 22,500          54
         . . .
    Computer Repairer        30,212          46
    Food Service and Lodging 50,500          44
    Management Consultant    60,000          43
         . . .
    Teacher (Secondary)      35,880          37
    Sports Instructor        51,500          37
         . . .
    Airline Pilot            95,794          35
    Physician               178,000          35
         . . .
    Stockbroker              90,000          33
    Accountant/Auditor       37,166          32
    Lawyer                   58,500          31
    Computer Programmer      38,272          30
         . . .
    Pharmacist               49,608          29

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    Last Updated on March 13, 2001