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Out Loud: Attracting Minority Women in Computer Science

Lisa Phillips: The percentage of undergraduate computer science degrees earned by women has been steadily falling since 1984. In 1996, the most recent year of statistics that are available, just a little more than a quarter of graduating CS majors were women. But black women are earning almost half of the CS degrees given to blacks overall. One reason could be the role of HBCU's -- Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Dr. Lisa Schulte is a professor of social personality psychology at one of them, Xavier University of Louisiana.

Dr. Lisa Schulte: We don't know exactly the dynamics of the role yet, but we do know that if you have an African American female who has graduated with a CS degree, a Computer Science degree, it's very likely that she graduated from a HBCU.

Lisa: To find out more about the role HBCU's play, Schulte and co-investigator Antonio Lopez, a Xavier Computer Science professor, will spend three years tracking groups of black women Computer Science majors at HBCU's and non-HBCU's. The study funded by the National Science Foundation will ask them about what motivates them and how they view their chosen profession. Schulte is already developing ideas about why HBCU's seem to be so important.

Dr. Lisa: One perhaps could be that the environment at an HBCU is more welcoming to females majoring in the computing sciences. There's other dynamics, it could be at non-HBCU's, or at majority caucasian institutions, people may experience not only African American females, but may experience what's known as "stereotype threat." Which basically is a factor that can hinder one's performance and it results from perceptions that others hold stereotypes about their abilities. But the end result is it actually hinders the performance of the individual.

Lisa: Schulte suspects these qualities help nurture what she calls self-efficacy in African American females.

Dr. Lisa: If a person has high self-efficacy, they believe that their behaviors make a difference. They believe that they have the ability to accomplish what they set out to accomplish. And they will also work towards those goals, actively work towards those goals.

Lisa: Schulte hopes to come away from the study with some concrete data on how Historically Black Colleges and Universities help encourage interest in computer science. And what non-HBCU's can learn from them.

Dr. Lisa: In this field what has been lacking in the research is the psychological side. In fact I recently went to a conference and the vast majority is computer scientists. I think I was one of two, or maybe one of three social scientists. I was greeted with open arms. Other fields, especially people in CS, Computer Science, wanted the input of psychologists to really understand the phenomena of females in CS, and then in the low numbers of females in CS. So encouraging individuals from different fields to cooperate, to work together, is obviously highly worthwhile.

Lisa: Finding the key to getting more black women into Computer Science also means looking at why blacks overall are not entering the field. Only nine percent of the undergraduate CS degrees go to blacks. One theory suggests that there may not be enough computers at poor inner city schools.

UCLA educational researcher, Jane Margolis, the author of "Unlocking The Clubhouse: Women Studying Computer Science," is working on another NSF-funded study on the role of computers in the Los Angeles City School District. She says she's finding that the reason why so few blacks and Hispanics learn computer science in high school, is not always a matter of how many computers each school has.

Jane Margolis: There are huge differences about how the computers are being used, and what is being taught. And the schools that are predominately Latino and African American have less of a curriculum. So even though some of those schools could be technology rich, I mean having computers in the classroom and being hooked up, but tend to be curriculum poor -- don't offer programming, don't offer AP Computer Science. So the learning opportunities in the schools vary very much, based on race and socioeconomics.

Lisa: Margolis is also looking at the cultural influences on how students relate to computers.

Jane: Our interviews with the students are talking to them about what their associations are with computing. Do they see this as a white world? Do they feel that they could belong? Are they interested in it? What interests them? Is there a clash between what they see as their racial identity and what would be a computing identity? So while these differences and opportunities are really critical in making someone engaged or not engaged, we're also looking beyond schooling and seeing if there are cultural issues that are also at play here.

Lisa: If indeed Computer Science is seen as a "white thing," there may be ways to change that impression. Margolis says new efforts are in the works to give the wired world a more multicultural feel.

Jane: There is a study that's now in the process, I mean, looking for funding, using a hip-hop van, mobile van, that would go around to different boys and girls clubs, and using the connection between hip-hop and the learning of fundamentals of programming. And making that connection for students. So it is beginning to happen where people are really examining these issues of race and culture, socioeconomics and why there are so few underrepresented minorities in computing.

Lisa: For 51 Percent, I'm Lisa Phillips.

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