CSE receives $720K grant to enhance recruitment of women in computer science

Researchers hope to see a greater number of women pursuing careers in computing and a better experience for them during their time at U-M.

A team of University of Michigan Computer Science and Engineering course instructors have launched a new initiative to expand efforts in the Division to increase the number of women studying computing. The “REcruitment and REtentioN of Women in Computer Science,” or “RENEW CS,” project will be supported by the Center for Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University with a $722,123 budget over two years.

“This project gives us a very real possibility to make CSE better for everyone at the undergraduate level,” says CSE professor Westley Weimer, a primary investigator on the project. “This project gives us the opportunity to be more proactive: to focus our vision on the future. The time frame means we can focus on sustained, measurable change.”

The project’s leadership is comprised of several faculty who primarily teach the core introductory courses in the computer science curriculum. It is these courses (described broadly in the field as CS0, CS1, and CS2) which serve as the focus for the project, as they are often a key early bottleneck for students.

The project has six goals in particular: 

  • Growing U-M’s CS0 course
  • Improving U-M’s CS1 and CS2 courses
  • Developing a mentorship program to support the growth and improvements in these courses
  • Revising the Division’s teaching assistant application process
  • Providing data and analysis to support future efforts.

“RENEW CS has the potential to bring change in some of the fundamental blocks of CS,” says Janice M. Jenkins Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Rada Mihalcea, a primary investigator on the project. “Starting with the intro course sequence, all the way to selection of instructional support and the mentorship available, we can ensure an environment that is welcoming and supportive for all.”

A key goal of the project is to improve the representation of women in course instruction, extending an effort already begun in the Division. Through changes to the teaching assistant application process, U-M was recently able to achieve a 52% female teaching staff in EECS 280. The grant will enable these efforts to continue, and for the addition of expanded teaching assistant training.

Students in the introductory CS courses will be able to make use of a pilot mentoring program being launched as part of RENEW CS. The program aims to pair first- or second-year students with more advanced CS peers in order to allow younger students to learn from the technical and professional experience of more advanced students.

“We expect the mentorship program to also strengthen the sense of community that exists among undergraduate students in CS,” the team writes.

In addition to the project’s mentoring program and a more balanced instruction staff, the introductory courses will also benefit from expanded section offerings and more direct access to instructors.

U-M’s CS0 class, called EECS 198: Discover Computer Science, is offered as a one-credit course specifically for curious students with no CS background at all. The course was designed in 2018 by Mihalcea and CSE lecturer Laura Burdick, who was at the time a PhD student in Mihalcea’s lab. The course has been offered every fall since, adding PhD student Laura Biester to the instructor roaster, and provides a basic background in all the skills a student needs to pursue further education in computing, including coding with Python.

As part of the RENEW CS grant, the team plans to significantly grow the course, aiming to reach two sections of 40 students each during the Fall and Winter semesters.

Efforts to improve the CS1 and CS2 courses, which at U-M are covered by EECS 183: Elementary Programming Concepts, EECS 203: Discrete Mathematics, and EECS 280: Programming and Introductory Data Structures, will focus on making the materials more accessible and the instruction more focused for at-risk students. Specific strategies include adding more sections in order to give students closer access to instructors, shifting the focus of coursework to social applications, creating modules to expose students to CS careers, and designing focused sections for groups of at-risk students.

Together, the instructors hope these efforts can result in both a greater number of women pursuing careers in computing and in a better experience for them during their time at U-M.

“While efforts in recent years have brought us to an upward trend in the number of women students enrolled in our program, they have been mainly isolated efforts led by a handful of faculty and students,” Mihalcea says. “What we have learned from this previous work is that bringing change in the demographics of a place can be very challenging, and it requires all hands on deck.”

The investigators on the grant are planning a first round of course changes over the summer for deployment in the fall and winter of FY’20-’21. The full list of the project’s PIs and Co-PIs includes: Rada Mihalcea, Westley Weimer, William Arthur, Laura Burdick, Kimberly Diaz, Barbara Ericson, Amir Kamil, and Danai Koutra. The Center for Inclusive Computing has committed to the first two years of funding, at which point the project will be evaluated for continued support.