Bringing balance to the course

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The Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC)&rsquo;s Workshop in Computer Science for Young Women is working to correct the gender imbalance in CS studies. The event, which focuses on making girls in grades 9 and 10 interested in computer science, ran for its 15th year May 15-20.</p>

The workshop was first conceived in 2001, when a donation was made to CEMC by the J.W. Graham Endowment Fund for the purposes of a youth outreach workshop. Sandy Graham (no relation) is the director of the Workshop for Computer Science for Young Women, having been a part of the program since its inception.

Graham explained that the main factor that brought about the women-only computer science workshop was the worrying statistics of women in CS: “At the time, participation of female students in computer science in high school and post-secondary programs was less than 20 per cent. This number [was] small, but more than that, it [was] a number that was dropping from its peak in the 1980s.”

This year’s program started off by introducing participants to two broad areas of computer science: programming and digital hardware. From there, the students could attend different sessions throughout the week which covered the area that interested them the most. On top of that, there were lectures, hands-on activities, and labs throughout the week, which covered more specific areas of CS. They were designed to change perceptions on what CS actually encompasses. Rounding out the week were social activities organized in the evenings — for example, taking in a play at the Stratford Festival, or a game of laser tag. This year’s workshop also featured a panel session where undergraduate and graduate women in CS discussed their experiences.

Rather than there being some external factor explaining the small amount of women in CS, Graham felt that the reason was based on personal choice: “There are no real obstacles that prevent women from participating in CS courses. Young women are choosing not to study CS in high school and university. In many cases, this is because they, like many male students, have a misconception of what computer science is. The stereotype of CS is unappealing to many young women.”

The workshop is designed to combat misconceptions of what CS is by broadening its attendees’ understanding of the field and helping them find some application of computer science that appeals to them. Graham said that the program gets very positive responses from its attendees every year, with the post-workshop surveys they complete saying they’ve developed a better understanding of computer science than they had coming in.

Graham took note of the fact that women are not the only group underrepresented in CS fields, but noted that the lack of women in CS was definitely a problem that warrants addressing: “There are many more jobs in CS than those who are studying it. This is an increasing problem. We need more people from diverse backgrounds, not just women, to choose CS as a field of study. Although women are not the only underrepresented group, this is the one our workshop is addressing.”

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