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Paving the Way For Women, Minorities Into STEM

Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe.

Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe says science, technology, engineering, and math subjects "should be taught by people who are passionate and inclusive" in order to succeed in engaging students.

Credit: Harvey Mudd College

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College (HMC) in Claremont, CA since 2006, has had a distinguished (40+ years) career as a computer science administrator and educator. The Toronto native earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Alberta, and remained at that institution to earn Ph.D.s in both mathematics and computer science. Klawe then spent eight years working with IBM Research in California, and two years at the University of Toronto, before moving to the University of British Columbia (UBC), where she held positions that included head of the Department of Computer Science, vice president of student and academic services, and Dean of Science. She then served as Dean of Engineering and a professor of computer science at Princeton University, before joining HMC in 2006. 

Klawe, who became a naturalized US citizen in 2009, serves on the boards of Microsoft and Broadcom; she also served as president of ACM from 2002 to 2004. Klawe is an accomplished artist and shows her work to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students to assure them mathematics, engineering, computer science (CS), and the arts are not mutually exclusive.

She is perhaps proudest of  her commitment and passion regarding diversity in CS and STEM education, and for her initiatives to increase the number of women in STEM and ensure they receive equal pay. During Klawe's 15-year tenure at UBC, she also served as Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)-IBM chair for Women in Science and Engineering, tasked with attracting more women to CS and engineering; during her five years in that chair, she saw the percentage of women CS majors at UBC rise from 16% to 27%.

When Klawe assumed her role at president of HMC in 2006, approximately 30% of the students and faculty were female; today, about 45% of the institution's students are women, as are about 40% of its faculty.

Throughout your career, you've advocated for greater diversity, and greater representation and gender equality for women, in STEM and computer science.  What should the academic community being doing to attract underrepresented minorities, women, and economically disadvantaged students to major in computer science and STEM?

We do need more access to computer science courses in schools, but it's also possible to attract people to CS who had no access to CS in high school; when you do that, you can expect much higher success rates. If you start as a first-year student, you'll be able to do something useful with your skills and have a path to a general career. In middle and high schools, you're still a long way off.

Do you think that schools—elementary and middle schools, as well as high schools—should start teaching STEM subjects earlier, and make them a required part of the curriculum?

It's helpful, but it will only be successful if you can get people who can teach it well. If the course is going to be taught by a teacher who's not persuasive, it's not going to be good.

To succeed in engaging students, computer science, engineering, and other STEM subjects should be taught by people who are passionate and inclusive. One thing we've done with our engineering design class is to partner with a local school that works with students with physical disabilities; there are lot of people doing amazing things and reaching out to help others. It's a great story.

I think CS should be a required part of the curriculum, if we invest in training teachers. The starting salary for a teacher is a lot less than for a CS engineer, and so far, we in the U.S. haven't been as successful in supporting teachers. I'm in favor of including STEM subjects in K–12, assuming we can recruit and pay teachers what they're worth.

But I still concentrate more of my efforts into following women and people of color into STEM during the first year of university; then you can track it and get the work done. I've occasionally met a student that I worked with in middle school who says to me, "I'm here because of what happened earlier." I believe we have more impact on students in the latter part of K–12.

The more you get students into a pipeline where they'll be exposed to STEM year after year, which is much better than something that you do for a couple of weeks in the summer.

For example, the Level Playing Field Institute run by Freada Kapor Klein has a program called SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors Academy), which is a STEM-intensive college preparatory program for underrepresented high school students of color. SMASH has a rigorous five-week,  three-year summer, fully residential STEM enrichment program which provides access to STEM coursework and access to mentors, role models, and support networks of students of color. SMASH boasts 50% women majors and graduates.

And the California State University at Monterey Bay (CSUMB) School of Computing and Design Cohort Programs focus on women, underrepresented minorities, and first-generation low-income families. Women comprise 40% of students in CSUMB's STEM and CS courses, and 65% are underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students. CSUMB now has a 68% graduation rate, which is very encouraging.

How would you grade yourself and Harvey Mudd College on the current state of diversity and gender equality on campus?

I've been doing outreach for diversity for my entire career, and I'm 66 years old now. We've made substantial progress on both the diversity and gender equality fronts. We've achieved gender balance in computer science, engineering, and in physics. These are three disciplines where the number of women has lagged well behind men.

Over the last several years, Harvey Mudd has become one of the most racially diverse small private colleges in the U.S.  Presently, the student population is 44% white, while the incoming freshmen class is 20% Hispanic and 10% African-American. There's tangible progress, but there's still more to be done.

Do you think the STEM skills shortage is real?

Yes and no. In computer science and computer engineering, the shortage is real, and that's especially true for software-related positions like software developers, more so than for hardware jobs. There is currently a huge demand for electrical engineering. Right now Amazon has openings for 7,000 in computer science and computer engineering. Accenture, in India alone, hired 17,000 computer science engineers. There are twice as many openings as there are graduating engineers. 

However, in certain STEM fields, there is no skills shortage. In general, the U.S. over-produces chemistry and biology majors and professionals.

There's definitely ageism in hiring in tech; once you're over 50 and have just done software engineering for your whole career, you could be done. If the tech industry did a better job of retraining, we wouldn't have as many openings.

There's still a lack of inclusion, which is problematic. Many women leave the CS field after seven to 10 years.

What can the academic community do to get the current and future crop of millennials interested in STEM as a major and a potential occupation?

It depends a lot on the kind of institution they attend.

I believe we should focus on getting students interested in computer science and computer engineering. When I was at the University of British Columbia, we had 1,500 freshmen, and 900 would think they were interested in biology because they might be going to Medical School. We'd encourage them to do a joint major between science and arts, or commerce and engineering. Joint majors make it easier to attract more people to CS, because you're not taking them away from their primary interest, and it's also something they can do to make money. In places where students don't have to take CS the first year of college, having a professor say "consider a joint major because it will improve your career options" is compelling.

Secondly, it's crucial that you make CS as engaging as possible. At HMC, we've split [our courses] into sections; we have tracks for students that have no CS experience, some CS experience, and those that are very experienced in CS. You need a great first CS class, and if you get an internship, that's even better.

Overall, it's about how you encourage people at the beginning.  Our message is "Don't give up what you think is your passion; you can do both." Engaging and encouraging them with a great first CS course and exploring all their options is half the battle. Do what you love and you'll be successful.

Another piece of advice is to tell students: "take one course each year in a subject you're not good in."

Over the past several years, there's been a growing movement towards free STEM camps and coding camps. What's your opinion about this?

Free STEM camps and paid-tuition coding boot camps are all good things; they expose students to CS and other STEM subjects. But I'm still committed to devoting most of my efforts into nurturing and tracking women and minority students during their first year studying CS, engineering, and other STEM subjects at the college level. I believe it's more impactful when you can get students into a college where they'll focus on computer science, engineering, and math for four consecutive years; it will yield much more positive outcomes than something they do for a few weeks in the summer.

Do you have any other message about STEM in general and CS in particular?

The big takeaway is that it's neither difficult nor expensive to make CS interesting and engaging for everyone: women, people of color, and first-generation college students. It's a question of rethinking the way we frame courses. We need to set people up to succeed by giving them the necessary support and the academic tools. There still are teachers and even guidance counselors —mostly older males—who perpetuate stereotypes to students that girls will not do well in math, engineering, physics, and other STEM subjects.

We also need to provide access to computers in schools at every level, and encourage students to code and build applications (other than Web design).

Laura DiDio is Principal Analyst at ITIC, a research and consulting firm in the Boston area.


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