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Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe on Women in Science, Math and Engineering

September 10, 2011 recently spoke with Harvey Mudd College president Dr. Maria Klawe. Klawe earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Alberta in 1977 and joined Harvey Mudd in 2006 after serving as Princeton University’s dean of engineering and computer science. Klawe serves on the boards of Microsoft and Broadcom, and for her academic service has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates.

Harvey Mudd College is a private institution located in Claremont, California and is one of the top math, science and engineering colleges in the US, accepting only one-third of applicants. Harvey Mudd is part of the Claremont Colleges consortium that includes Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College, Pomona College and Scripps College. What sparked your interest in technology?

Maria Klawe: When I was a child I pretty much liked everything, but especially math, music and poetry. I turned 60 this year so when I was a child, girls didn’t do math and didn’t do engineering. I was determined to do everything that boys did. So initially I decided I would study engineering because it was a way to combine math and art, science and design, as well as doing something that girls didn’t do.

OD: What advice do you have for middle and high school students who have an interest in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math)?

Klawe: My first message is hard work is much more important than being super smart. The reason I say this is that in our country we tend to think of math and science as something you’re born good at rather than something you work hard to be good at, whereas with basketball or baseball or music we know practice makes a huge difference.

It doesn’t matter who learns math faster. What matters is whether you put in the time and perseverance in actually learning the material thoroughly. Everybody can be good at math. It’s a question of hard work and persistence more than anything else, and if it takes you a long time to learn something, that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be good at it. It just means it took you a long time to learn it.

My second message – and this is particularly important for students once they’re in high school or college – is to be aware of the “imposter syndrome”. It often happens that even though a student seems to be doing very well, he or she doubts that they really deserve the success that they have. Because of that doubt, if something goes wrong and the student gets a poor grade unexpectedly, or has a teacher who doesn’t express confidence in their ability to succeed in the course, the student may not work as hard and then not do as well.

It’s important to know that the imposter syndrome is something that many people suffer from, and that it’s persistence and hard work that will make the difference, and that if you just keep pushing on it and get encouragement and help from others, you’re going to do just fine.

OD: Harvey Mudd College has made impressive gains with respect to women in computer science. What’s been most effective in making this happen?

Klawe: The first thing I want to make really clear is that I played almost no role in the change that happened. We were like many similar kinds of colleges and universities with between 10 and 15 percent of the computer science majors being female.

The year before I arrived as President our department decided that they wanted to do something about this, triggered in part by the hiring of an assistant professor named Christine Alvarado. Christine had just finished her PhD at MIT and throughout her time there many faculty and students treated her as though she wasn’t likely to be very good because she was female, and that really annoyed her.

After coming to Harvey Mudd, Christine decided to work with several other faculty members on this issue. The first thing they did was to change the introductory computer science class. Every student who comes to Harvey Mudd has to take a computer science class in their first semester. The course was loved by the people who had been programming since they were in their early teens or pre-teens and it was despised by pretty much everyone else.

The course was changed to cover the same concepts, but in a different context. Part of the change included switching the programming language from Java to Python. Python is a much better prototyping language than Java and much more user-friendly. In addition, they streamed the CS 5 class so there was a class for students who had taken A.P. Computer Science, and a class for students who had little or no experience. They also introduced a new course, CS 42, for students who had taken an introduction to computer science at a university while still in high school.

One of the reasons these changes helped is that if there are a bunch of students in the introductory computer science class who already know a lot of material they can intimidate the other students, just by showing that they know so much. It’s not a difference in ability (all of our students are bright, hard-working and nice), it’s a difference in preparation. The combination of those changes made CS 5 the favorite course of the majority of the students, instead of being the most despised required course in the first semester.

We’ve also run a program for the last 5 years where we invite our incoming first year female students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference where there are a couple thousand women, all technical, and all happy, showing that there is a community of women in computer science having an amazing experience. The effect has been to make it not seem so strange that you want to major in computer science, because you’ve gone and seen all of these highly enthusiastic and successful women who are having these great careers in computer science.

Our hardcore programming class, which the students refer to as boot camp for programming, is called CS 70. It’s typically taught by Professor Melissa O’Neill. Prior to 2007, I don’t think she’d ever had more than two women in a class. This year, she has 57 students in her class, and it’s 40 percent female.

OD: That’s really impressive especially given my experience while in university. My computer engineering class had 80 students and only one woman.

Klawe: Yeah, it really is – and it’s not even strange anymore, if you know what I mean.

OD: Yes – we need to reach a point where this topic isn’t discussed anymore.

Klawe: Yeah. I think a place that it’s still discussed is when employers come to recruit. The number of tech companies that are recruiting from Harvey Mudd has just exploded because of the fact that when you hire one of our students you’re really happy. The fact that we have so many female computer science graduates makes us stand out from virtually everyone across the country. It’s been an amazing transition for us.

OD: What do you think that middle and high schools can do to best prepare students for colleges like Harvey Mudd, and in particular to encourage women to pursue careers in technology if they have an interest?

Klawe: I think the first thing is actually having teachers and guidance counselors that are encouraging female students. I do a ton of outreach to high school students and always have. I think I did my first one when I was 17 years old and in my first year in university. One of the things that stunned me in 1990, more than 20 years ago, was when I was doing outreach for grade 11 students, all girls in this particular case. One of the students said, “Well what do you do when you have a Physics teacher who starts the class by saying, ‘Okay, this is going to be a really hard class for the girls, and here are the topics they’re not going to do well in’.”

And I said, “It’s 1990! Have others of you had this experience?” And they start nodding, and I said, “Okay, raise your hand” and out of 60 or 70 female students in the room – all good students because they were chosen for this special weekend event – probably 90 percent raised their hand.

I’ve done the same thing many times since then, and it’s just depressing. There still are teachers, mostly male, mostly older, who are essentially giving their students the impression that girls will not do well in subjects like physics, math, engineering, etc.

It’s the same thing with guidance counselors. There are way too many guidance counselors that will basically tell girls that they won’t be happy in computer science, that there aren’t any jobs in computer science, etc. It’s amazing how long the dot-com crash and outsourcing shadow has lasted in terms of influencing guidance counselors and parents to discourage their kids from going into computer science.

Addressing this problem is the first thing I would do. It doesn’t do any good, obviously, to come out and tell teachers, “Well, you idiots, what are you doing telling girls this?” It’s much better to provide them with examples of young women who are really excelling and enjoying being in these fields, and to provide them with examples. I talk a lot about the demand for well-educated software developers, software engineers and hardware engineers. Teachers have a big influence on what students choose.

The second thing I would say is providing access to computers in school, and I mean stuff other than building web pages. I don’t know if you know, but every year the number of students taking the AP Computer Science exam has gone down.

OD: Interesting, I didn’t know that. That’s unfortunate.

Klawe: They have canceled the AP Computer Science AB exam [in May 2009] because there just weren’t enough students. So one of the things that’s happening to both support and recruit more computer science teachers, and to design a new AP Computer Science course, is to take into account many of the things that we’ve been talking about that will help increase diversity.

Computer Scientist Jan Cuny at the National Science Foundation has been working on this initiative. There’s also an organization called the Computer Science Teachers Association., which is working to support C.S. teachers, providing access to robotics courses or C.S. courses, that are taught by people who are interested in getting more females involved.

One of the things I see in students who have been able to come to Harvey Mudd is that they have had good high school courses in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and that they have had good courses in English, because we put a huge emphasis on writing and oral communications, and that they have been exposed to rigorous challenges, because we think it is really important that students be excited by intellectual challenge and hard work, and that they are excited by the idea that you’re going to work together as a team to get things done.

Because whether you go to grad school or whether you go directly into industry, virtually everybody is going to be working in teams. Knowing how to do that effectively is really important.

From day one we tell our students that we know you were one of the best students in your high school, and you probably didn’t work in teams because you didn’t need to. You were the person that helped others get through their math or science course or whatever, and what we do at Harvey Mudd is make the curriculum so challenging that virtually no student will be able to do it on their own.

And we also set it up to encourage you to work with others, and we joke that having fun in the evening at Mudd is being part of a group that is doing your physics homework or your computer science homework or your math homework. It’s a great approach because by the time students graduate, they have had a lot of experience working with people who have different strengths and different approaches, and they know how to make that work.

OD: What perspective do you bring to the boards of Microsoft and Broadcom?

Klawe: Well the first thing I want to say is I think it’s a great education for a college president or a university president to serve on a corporate board, so I want to flip the question around for a moment and just say there’s a lot to be learned about how companies function, and what the critical issues are, by having the opportunity to sit on a board, so it’s a great learning experience for me.

I think the thing that somebody from an educational background brings is first of all a strong awareness of what’s going on with college students, the cultural changes – how students think about things and how they react to things. For Microsoft, that’s a big deal, because college students are usually the early adopters and what they like and what they do is something that often drives what moves into industry, especially now with the consumerization of I.T.

At Broadcom what’s really interesting to me as a computer scientist is to see the things that I heard in a research seminar 10 or 12 years ago become real. I think one of the things that academic computer scientists bring to a board position is that they’ve been watching technology develop for 30 years and bring a slightly different perspective from somebody who has been a CFO, or something like that, in the technical industry.

My sense is that the reason college presidents get asked to be on boards is that in addition to bringing a different perspective, they’re not afraid to ask questions and they’re used to learning a lot of new stuff rapidly.

OD: One final question, you’ve experienced both the public university system in Canada and private colleges in the U.S. Are you concerned about the rapid rate of tuition inflation and how that will impact accessibility?

Klawe: First of all let me say that I received a great education in Canada, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, and I truly believe that for people in the middle, Canada is more affordable and gives a wider range of students a chance to get an excellent education.

If you’re at a large public university in Canada, you can find smaller subcultures that will offer you many of the advantages that you could get from being at a wonderful place like Harvey Mudd, Princeton, Stanford or one of the very expensive undergraduate institutions in the U.S. It’s partly because everybody goes to the public universities in Canada and a result there are these subcultures of very bright, very hard-working, very creative students who will interact a great deal with faculty.

If I think about the situation in the United States, it’s absolutely different. For example, there’s much more financial aid at private colleges than there is in Canada. If you are coming from a family that earns less than $40,000 per year and you go to a Harvey Mudd or M.I.T. or Princeton, you will have everything paid for, and that’s just not the case in Canada, so it’s a very different circumstance.

The people who are actually impacted by the fact that it costs $50,000 a year to go to one of the elite institutions in the U.S. are the people who are earning between $70,000 and $180,000 per year, because those are the people who will end up paying a significant portion of their child’s tuition. They’ll get some financial aid, but it’s still a very significant investment. It’s just a very different system.

What I would say in the United States is accessibility is there for low-income families, and accessibility is there for the very wealthy, obviously, but the group that I worry about is the people in the middle, especially if they didn’t manage to start saving for the child’s college education early. If you don’t do that, then I think you are really faced with either having significant loans or going to a state university, and I would say in general the undergraduate education at the state universities in the U.S. is not as good as the undergraduate education at public universities in Canada.

I totally love being at Mudd. It’s my favorite place ever, but the reason I love being here is because people are so committed to the students and the students are just so wonderful.

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