Women Specialize in Computer Science at California School

21 February, 2017

Women are under-represented in the technology industry around the world.

At colleges and universities in the United States, women represent only one in six students of computer science.

That number is changing at some schools, like Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. The school is a leader in getting women interested in technological professions.

At its robotics laboratory, a small robot performs the movements of tai chi, an ancient Chinese meditation exercise.

Student Jane Wu writes commands from a nearby computer. With these commands, she is demonstrating a simple form of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Wu is a third-year student in mathematics and computer science at the college.

Jane Wu, a junior at Harvey Mudd College majoring in computer science and mathematics, writes computer code for autonomous robots.
Jane Wu, a junior at Harvey Mudd College majoring in computer science and mathematics, writes computer code for autonomous robots.

She says she decided on a career in computer science after taking a robotics class called Autonomous Vehicles. In the class, she and other students built robots that can act on their own, without any human control.

"And, in that class, we got to make our own autonomous robots from scratch."

Harvey Mudd College has just 800 students. It was named after a mining engineer who helped set up the school. It is part of a group of schools called The Claremont Colleges in the eastern part of Los Angeles.

Ten years ago, the college re-created its computer science program to make it less difficult for students without much experience with computers. The effort has produced noticeable results: last year, more than half of the students who completed the program were women.

Students are first placed in groups based on their knowledge of computers to reduce their fear of technology. Many of the students later find that computer science is "a beautiful intellectual discipline," says professor Ran Libeskind-Hadas, but also a useful one.

Taste of coding

All Harvey Mudd students are required to take an introductory computer class. That class fueled the interest of Veronica Rivera, who is studying computer science and mathematics.

"It was a very balanced class and I think the professors also do a very good job of making sure everyone feels welcome, regardless of their coding ability."

Rivera hopes to develop computer programs to help people who have difficulty moving parts of their bodies.

Women were well-known coders in the early days of computers when Grace Hopper helped invent programming languages. She later became a top official in the United States Navy.

Jim Boerkoel is an assistant professor who supervises the robotics lab. He spoke to VOA about Grace Hopper.

"So she [Hopper] is the original coder. It was only in later decades, the 1980s and 90s, that computer games and the idea of computer programming got heavily marketed toward boys rather than girls."

Women technologists

At Harvey Mudd, some women who come to study engineering rediscover programming. Each year, many attend what is said to be the world's largest conference of women technologists. It is called the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Emilia Reed is a computer science student at Harvey Mudd.

"With coding, I can just have my computer, have some programming language I'm working in, and I can make almost whatever I want."

Reed is helping create computer apps to increase the productivity of workers and students.

Internship programs are part of the training. Samantha Andow, a third-year student, is making plans to serve as an intern at Microsoft Corporation in the state of Washington.

"I'm really excited to see all the problems that computer science is working on right now."

Maria Klawe is president of Harvey Mudd College. She says computers are important to all areas of life, and the technology industry needs the best and the smartest.

"If we don't manage to get a more diverse community into technology," she said, "we're not going to get as good solutions, as much progress as we need on the problems facing the world," whether it is climate change or education, health care.

Klawe says today's issues need the creativity that diversity brings, and that the field needs more women and minorities as future programmers. Both groups do not have enough representation in the technology industry, she says.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

Mike O'Sullivan reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

meditation - n. the act or process of spending time in quiet thought; the act or process of meditating

artificial intelligence - n. an area of computer science that deals with giving machines the ability to seem like they have human intelligence

regardless - adv. without being stopped by difficulty or trouble

coder - n. a computer programmer

app - n. a computer program that performs a special function

internship - n. a job for a student or recent graduate who works for a period of time at a company or organization to gain experience

diverse - adj. different from each other

discipline - n. the suppression or control of desires

introductory - adj. of or related to the beginning of something