Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A College President Who Is Improving the Computing Climate

Dr. Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College in California, has created initiatives for enhancing the climate for computing.

She is a native Canadian (like I am) and holds a PhD in Mathematics and was also working on her PhD in Computer Science at the University of Toronto, when she was offered a faculty position there. In 2002, she moved to become Dean at Princeton University of its school of engineering and applied sciences (coincidentally, Harvard has a similar school and its present dean is also a female, Cherry Murray). This time, her husband followed her and, before long, her administrative skills were recognized and she was regularly recruited. The opening of the Presidency of Harvey Mudd College caught her attention -- she applied and in three years has made major inroads, both in terms of financial fund raising as well as academic and intellectual leadership.

Partially, through her efforts, the introductory course in computer science at Harvey Mudd has now been redesigned to make it more welcoming and "fun." In addition, she has secured funding for about 100 female students to attend the Grace Murray Hopper annual conference, named after the legendary female and computer programmer.

According to an article, published in yesterday's New York Times:  “Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with,” said Zachary Dodds, a computer scientist at Mudd. “We realized we were helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course.” 

To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two sections — “gold,” for those with no prior experience, and “black” for everyone else. Java, a notoriously opaque programming language, was replaced by a more accessible language called Python. And the focus of the course changed to computational approaches to solving problems across science. 

“We realized that we needed to show students computer science is not all about programming,” said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, chairman of the department. “It has intellectual depth and connections to other disciplines.”

The article in The New York Times also discusses whether such ideas are scalable to other universities and colleges.

We need to nurture the intellects of all, and to create opportunities and support for all, especially in our technology-driven society. Without mathematics, operations research, computer science, engineering, and, of course, algorithms, implemented in software, coupled with the best of the social and behavioral sciences, the many problems that we are faced with today will not be solved.

You can read more about Dr. Maria Klawe, my exploits at the World Science Festival in NYC, and activities of female mathematicians in this edition of the  Association for Women in Mathematics  Newsletter.