Colleen Lewis’s career in STEM began as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, when she met a charismatic friend in a physics class.
“She was going to be a computer science major. We started studying together, and she said to me, ‘Colleen, next semester I’m taking this CS class, take it with me? I said no that’s only for smart people, obviously not for me.’ But she is the most stubborn person that I know, so she got me into it kicking and screaming. I ended up loving the content of that first semester.”
The next semester Colleen decided to take another computer science class, without this friend and with decidedly less stellar results. She had to drop the class to avoid failing the class, and when she took it the next semester, she got 5/25 on her first exam.
“At that point, my friends might have thought, ‘maybe you’re not cut out for this.’ But later I did my PhD at Berkeley and taught that data structures class three times. Things can take time to learn, and that’s okay. We have to be really careful about the advice we give ourselves and our friends — even in cases like mine where it seemed that CS obviously wasn’t for me.”
As the McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College, Colleen’s memories of her early experiences as a beginner in CS help inform her current work on CS education and reducing bias. Her project CSTeachingTips.org is a resource for educators at all levels who teach computer science hoping to create inclusive learning environments.
“Some tips for department inclusivity would be to listen to students, design an intro course that is welcoming regardless of students’ level of prior CS exposure, and to monitor performance patterns, looking for canaries in the coal mine.”
The CS Teaching Tips website includes printable tip sheets on subjects like encouraging help seeking, pair programming, lecturing, and more, with videos and example language by every tip to help guide educators. The tip sheet on department inclusivity reads,
“Have experienced and effective educators teach the introductory courses. This can lead to students finding the department welcoming and supportive. To address differences in preparation, you can encourage students with prior CS experience to skip the first course or offering multiple introductory courses. In addition to providing curriculum customized to their level of experience, students might be less intimidated if everyone in the classroom shares their background.”
For many educators who are committed to prioritizing diversity but unsure of exactly how to make that a reality, the website provides concrete and actionable steps that can be implemented right away.
At some schools, the tips are already visible in action. Colleen is proud of the way Harvey Mudd has fostered student community, showed students the breadth of CS as a discipline, optimized the introductory course, and encouraged students to seek help. She says that about half of her students and faculty colleagues identify as women. This is important for creating a diverse community and set of role models. She also speaks about how recognizing sexism must go part and parcel with recognizing interlinked forms of oppression.
“I think it’s important that computer scientists understand how the world works, including systems of oppression like sexism and racism. As a white woman, I think it is my responsibility to push back against the tendency for some ‘diversity and inclusion’ efforts to focus exclusively on White women. There is a tendency to treat white women as the norm and forget that sexism and racism are deeply interconnected.”
Her advice for young women who might want to follow in her footsteps comes from her time slogging through that first data structures class in Berkeley.
“Debug the process. The first time I took data structures, it didn’t go well. I would go to the lab, but wouldn’t know what to do, and I wouldn’t ask for help. Turns out that’s not a great way to learn. A lot of it was pushing through the anxiety of not knowing.”
Ultimately, Colleen’s advice to “debug the process” and be okay with uncertainty isn’t just good advice for studying CS — it’s good advice for life.
Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase the inspiring women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.