Widening participation: engaging female students in Computer Science using role models



Picture credit: cs4fn’s second annual edition “The women are here

“The often forgotten story of women in computing is rich and diverse, and reaches back to the very beginning of the field itself. It is also, unfortunately, a story in which women have mostly been a minority within the field.” (1)

cs4fn (Computer Science 4 fun) is a public engagement project operating from within Queen Mary University of London, funded by the EPSRC, among others, and run by some of the people who are also on the chi+med project.

Although the two projects are very different…

cs4fn aims to engage and enthuse school students about computer science, highlighting its pervasiveness in everday life and its value as an interesting career
chi+med aims to transform the design and use of interactive medical devices by understanding human error in order to prevent mistakes or reduce their consequences

…there is a great deal of overlap, both in the content – for example people designing and using machines – and also in the shared aim of reaching out to a wider audience via public engagement.

Earlier this year  chi+med joined cs4fn at the Brighton Science Festival which takes place in a secondary school and is very popular with school students and their families. We put together some demonstrations to highlight some key themes that underpin the work being done at chi+med and chatted to the visitors about our work.

Although there was a fairly even mix of boys and girls taking part at this event, of different ages, the chances that the girls will take up further study in computer science drops dramatically as they grow older. Often the assumption is made (by them, or for them) that computer science is for boys and that it’s a male-dominated field.

“The pervasive stereotype is that computing as a domain is somehow essentially male. This has measurable effects on young women’s confidence in computing: Moorman and Johnson showed that female students rated their abilities less highly than their male counterparts, despite achieving higher average marks. Meanwhile, Fisher and Margolis cite a drop in confidence as a precursor to declining interest. Therefore, employing strategies to maintain and enhance female students’ initial confidence may be a useful way of retaining their interest.” (1)

cs4fn has been investigating ways of changing this assumption early on, before key decisions are made about future study options or careers.

The attached paper, “A study in engaging female students in Computer Science using role models“, evaluates the success of a free 60-page glossy booklet pictured above (also available as a PDF) aimed at 11-18 year olds which brings to life the work and research of women in computing.

The booklet spans history and gender (Florence Nightingale and Ada Lovelace as early pioneers as well as the recent work of Prof Ann Blandford who heads of the chi+med project) and shows women at different stages of their (modern) careers and the problems that they are helping to solve.

Feedback from teachers, as outlined in the paper (a more detailed evaluation will happen in 2013), indicates that the magazine is extremely popular with students and provides positive role models of computer scientists for young women.


Ada Lovelace Day event
You might also be interested in the Ada Lovelace Day event, an “entertaining evening of science, technology, comedy and song” happening in London on Tuesday 18 October 2012 at 6.30pm. More details here and tickets (£10, £5 conc) are available here


Further reading
(1) The attached paper is
Black J, Curzon P, Myketiak C and McOwan P (2011) A study in engaging female students in Computer Ccience using role models In Proceedings of ITiCSE 2011, The 16th Annual Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education ACM SIGCSE, 63-67 (PDF, 440 KB)    



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