Computer Science

Teaching Teachers: How Harvey Mudd professor Colleen Lewis shares CS teaching tips for inclusivity with educators around the world

Colleen Lewis ● McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science ● Harvey Mudd College

Colleen Lewis ● McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science ● Harvey Mudd College

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.


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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.

Rebel with Code and a Cause

Victoria Concepción Chávez ● Grad Student (Master’s Candidate, Urban Education Policy) and Research Intern at CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island)

Victoria Concepción Chávez ● Grad Student (Master’s Candidate, Urban Education Policy) and Research Intern at CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island)

Victoria Chávez’s teenage rebellion was taking computer science as an elective in high school. Her mother and grandmother had immigrated from Guatemala to Chicago for a better life for Victoria and had no idea what computer science was, but they noticed that people working with computers on television did not look like Victoria. They were hoping she might become a doctor. But Victoria was “blown away by all the cool things [she] could do through programming and by the sequential thinking and amazing problem solving it entailed. As frustrating as debugging was, it was the most rewarding academic challenge [she] had ever encountered.” 

Despite her family’s trepidation about her newfound passion, Victoria was hooked. When her teacher unassigned a complex hangman game as “too hard” for the students, Victoria kept at working at it for months until she got her code to work. She remembers being so happy that she cried. Victoria advocates that persistence and patience in problem solving are essential.

Victoria shares a deep feeling of responsibility to help others. At her first Hackathon, she developed an SMS-based app called SNAPy that would tell users which stores accept food stamps. The idea came from her own experiences growing up. 

Her recent work continues her desire to make a positive difference. Victoria is a research intern at Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI) while working on a master’s degree in Urban Education Policy at Brown University. She is looking at ways to make computer science, as well as education technologies, more accessible to students with disabilities, including ways to integrate universal design into CS curriculum. She has found that a lack of awareness of different forms of disabilities, as well as a lack of resources, hinders this process.

Victoria has advice for future engineers: “Take care of yourself and find a support system. Hard work takes a toll on mental and physical health. You need to find people who have the same values and can help you get through the obstacles and struggles. You can help them too.”

Victoria feels lucky to have friends and mentors to help lift her spirits, remind her of goals, and give her permission to have a bad day or two. She also learned the value of making mistakes and learning from them. 

“You WILL make mistakes, learn from them and correct for the next time. No matter how much you know, there’s always something you don’t know. You have to be comfortable with that and with others calling you out on that and learning from it.”

Victoria is proud to be paving the way for future females in tech and encourages other women to do the same. One example is being an active member of NCWIT’s Technolochicas community, inspiring Latinas to create the future of tech.

“We need to get through the tunnel so we can help other women through the tunnel. If you have the mental and emotional bandwidth to get through it, it’s important to pave the way for others.” 

Her mother and grandmother still don’t understand what computer science is, but they love how happy it makes Victoria and all the wonderful opportunities it has brought her way.

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This story was written by Hillary Fleenor, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow, and told in partnership with NCWIT.

Raquel Romano: Combining her Passion for Math and Computer Science to Serve Others

Raquel Romano ● Principal Software Engineer ● Threadloom

Raquel Romano ● Principal Software Engineer ● Threadloom

For many, math is a useful method for solving problems, but for Raquel Romano, math is a fascinating way to think. Captivated by how math expanded her mind and the many different methods she could use to formulate an answer, Raquel developed a deep love for mathematics and abstract thinking at a young age. She never imagined that math would open a door to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and lead to a career in building technology for good. In her youth, Raquel was a true renaissance woman, and was involved in several activities such as debate team, piano, soccer, and violin. Although she did not participate in any math competitions, she was naturally drawn to the subject in school. She enjoyed the mystery that math presented for her, and its puzzle-like qualities.

“I loved how it [math] clicked for me and fit together, and how there were so many different ways to reach a solution to the same problem. I was also drawn to the idea of mathematical concepts I had yet to learn---there was something alluring about trying to reach something that seemed almost unobtainable.”

The mathematician in the making never considered computer science, even when she was first introduced to coding at a young age..

“My grandfather gave me my first computer, and together we programmed in BASIC. I loved being with him because he didn’t live near us, and he liked teaching me how to code because the personal computer was a new thing at the time. He was a retired mechanical engineer who was always curious to learn something new.”

Although she did enjoy her first experience with computer science, she still decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics at Harvard University, where she faced significant challenges.

“At Harvard, I felt completely out of my league. The abstract math I was learning was completely different from the math we learned in grade school.”

Being an eager and self-motivated student, she dove head first into her classes, often facing doubts from professors and advisors who believed she was already too far behind in the curriculum because she came from a public school that had not offered advanced calculus. She attributes her perseverance at Harvard to the support she got from her mother and from a few classmates who convinced her she belonged in those challenging classes. Continuing on her path, she eventually collided with computer science once again.

Fascinated by other cultures, she had always wanted to study abroad, so when a fellow classmate told her about a mathematics program in Budapest, Hungary, Raquel seized this opportunity to travel. While in Hungary, she met a number of students majoring jointly in computer science and math, and that combination opened her eyes to a new world of possibilities.

“Computer science in Hungary was very theoretical, and together with classes in combinatorial math, I saw how the two disciplines connected with each other.”

With a newfound excitement for computer science, Raquel was inspired to pursue a Master of Science and eventually a Doctor of Philosophy in computer science at MIT. Now, as a principal software engineer for Threadloom, a company dedicated to reviving thoughtful discussions on the Internet using machine learning, Raquel draws on both her mathematical and computer science skills on a daily basis. Her excitement for computer science not only stems from its intellectual rewards, but also from the tangible impact it can have.

She served in the United States Digital Service, where she built technology to aid immigrants and veterans, and became fascinated by the impact of civic technology. At Google, she worked on crisis response tools that delivered information to people during natural disasters.

“Given that technology is inescapable in many of our lives, it’s important to me that what I build is not driven primarily by profit or entertainment, but rather by a desire to build technology in the service of people.”