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A Systemic Approach to Recruiting and Retaining Women in Undergraduate Computing

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2018 CoNECD - The Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference


Crystal City, Virginia

Publication Date

April 29, 2018

Start Date

April 29, 2018

End Date

May 2, 2018

Conference Session

Computing Track - Technical Session II

Tagged Topics

Diversity and Computing

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Paper Authors


Gretchen Achenbach University of Virginia

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Gretchen Achenbach is a research scientist in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia and with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her interests focus on the communication of scientific information and gender issues in computing and technology.

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Lecia Jane Barker University of Colorado

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Lecia Barker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder and a Senior Research Scientist for the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Lecia conducts research in attracting, retaining, and advancing groups underrepresented in computing. Her research focuses on social climate, identity/belonging, faculty adoption of teaching and curricular practices, and sustainable organizational change. She advocates changing social and educational environments so that all students can develop a sense of belonging, not on changing students so that they fit into unwelcome environments. She presents on how to get girls and women into computing education from high school through graduate education and how to retain in the field.

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Leisa D. Thompson University of Virginia

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Dr. Leisa Thompson is a Research Scientist in Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia. She also works for the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) as the Director of Research and Consulting for the NCWIT Extension Services for Undergraduate Programs. Dr. Thompson conducts research on systemic reform that focus on recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in undergraduate computing and engineering programs. Dr. Thompson has an undergraduate degree in Computer Science and over 15 years of corporate experience in Engineering and Information Technology as an applications engineer, systems administrator, systems engineer, and senior consultant for companies such as Xerox, Hughes Electronics, and IBM Corporation. She has also presented at various regional, national, and international conferences.

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Extension Services for Undergraduate Programs (ES-UP) at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) employs a multi-pronged, systemic approach to increasing the enrollment and retention of women in undergraduate computing departments. ES-UP’s efforts to date have resulted in significantly more women graduating with bachelor’s degrees in computing; combined, the departments served by ES-UP have sustained a 6% climb in graduations of women, while national figures remain flat.

ES-UP advocates for improving the environment for all students using research based strategies that correspond to the following six components of the ES-UP Systemic Change Model. (1) Strategic Recruiting prioritizes recruitment activities that provide the greatest return with the least investment of resources, for example, those that target qualified students who are available to declare a major within a few years with carefully crafted messages that appeal to women’s current interests and goals and to the concerns of influencers such as parents, teachers, and advisors. ES-UP recommends retention practices that are mainstreamed into the experiences of all students, rather than initiatives such as women’s support groups that may help in the short term but benefit only those students who choose to participate. Retaining through (2) Inclusive Pedagogy includes practices such as collaborative learning to encourage teamwork and a sense of community, and use of personally meaningful and socially relevant assignments that make clear the application of computing to real world problems. Retaining through (3) Curriculum includes providing multiple pathways into the major with options to ensure that students entering with little computing experience can succeed, and offering minors or tracks that align with or develop career goals. Providing (4) Student Support by encouraging everyday student-student and student-faculty interaction increases student engagement and fosters a sense of belonging. Examples include mentoring programs, research experiences for undergraduates (REUs), and student participation in computing conferences. (5) Institutional Support in the form of high-level administrative commitment ensures the public endorsement and access to resources necessary for implementing systemic change. And finally, comprehensive (6) Evaluation guides current and future efforts by identifying what works and what doesn’t, and provides data needed to garner support from and demonstrate success to administrators and colleagues.

This paper describes the ES-UP Systemic Change Model, presents evidence of its effectiveness, shares innovative examples from successful ES-UP client departments, and highlights relevant resources and strategies that undergraduate computing departments can implement themselves. Many of ES-UP’s recommendations are broadly applicable to engineering and other STEM departments where women are under-represented.

Achenbach, G., & Barker, L. J., & Thompson, L. D. (2018, April), A Systemic Approach to Recruiting and Retaining Women in Undergraduate Computing Paper presented at 2018 CoNECD - The Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference, Crystal City, Virginia. 10.18260/1-2--29502

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