Introductory EECS course designed for women, those without prior experience embarks on first semester

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 - 6:05pm

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Casey Tin/Daily

LSA senior Haley Richardson did not consider herself a programmer before receiving an email about a new computer science class. But the introductory-level course released at the University of Michigan this semester, EECS 198: Discover Computer Science, moved her to see new opportunities coming her way.

“I was immediately really interested for multiple reasons, one (being) that I have zero experience with computer science — I know absolutely nothing about it, and that’s one of the things that I’ve always been very aware of,” Richardson said. 

The one-credit course is led by EECS Professor Rada Mihalcea and doctoral student Laura Wendlandt. It focuses on exposing all students – particularly freshmen women – who have not had formal programming experience to the world of computer science. Throughout the semester, students will have the opportunity to learn essential computer science concepts, begin to write code, visit local computer science companies and more.

Mihalcea and Wendlandt developed the course as a way to expand the ideas of the CS KickStart program, which encourages women to enroll and continue in computer science courses at the University. They wanted to expand the goals of the program to more students.

“CS KickStart was successful in introducing women to computer science, so we wanted to think about ways that we could scale that sort of initiative and reach a larger audience,” Wendlandt said. “We wanted to take some of the CS KickStart material and other material and turn it into a class format to make it a little more accessible to more people and a broader set of people.”

Richardson described how she appreciated being in an environment designed for women, especially given the race and gender disparities in computer science and STEM at large. University records published in Fall 2015, for example, show the School of Engineering was 25 percent female and 2 percent Black— out of 9,428 students enrolled at the time, only 64 were female Black students.

“It’s geared entirely towards freshman women (but) anyone can take it, obviously — I’m not a freshman,” Richardson said. “But I like the idea of having a class that is geared towards people who are sort of underrepresented and inexperienced in this field and giving them the chance to dip their feet it.”

Mihalcea also pointed out the lack of women in computer science field and expressed the EECS Department’s desire to continue programs working to combat the issue.

“The number of women in computer science is not as high as the number of men so there is an imbalance there,” Mihalcea said, “So this is sort of the motivation behind initiatives like CS KickStart, Girls in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and other initiatives around trying to encourage women both in terms of recruiting and retaining.”

Though the course was designed for incoming freshmen women, Mihalcea and Wendlandt emphasized anyone is welcome to join.

“We received a lot of support,” Wendlandt said, “The department is very supportive of initiatives to recruit a lot of people to computer science. We will add that the class is open to everyone, not just to incoming freshman women. It’s open to anyone that would like to take it.”

Richardson said she preferred EECS 198 to other introductory EECS courses because of its inclusive and collaborative class climate.

“Me going into an EECS 183 class was sort of something I never imagined myself doing because it’s really intimidating,” Richardson said. “The environment is very different — you’re going to be around very different people and the pace and the sort of rigor of the course is so intense. This seemed like a really good way for me to get to know something that I was interested in and kind of excluded myself from before, and even felt excluded from just being a woman who studies other STEM and humanities.”

LSA freshman Monica Iyer is another student in EECS 198 who also had little prior programming experience but wanted to explore the realm of computer science. Iyer has enjoyed the course so far and echoed Richardson’s sentiment about its engaging and collaborative environment.

“It’s all girls so far, and a lot of them also haven’t really tried computer science — or at least people I’ve talked to,” Iyer said. “Everyone seemed really excited and willing to help. We did a little activity at the end of the first class and everyone was helping each other out and having fun with it, so it was really exciting.”

Iyer said she also appreciated having the opportunity to delve deeper into computer science without having to completely rearrange her schedule.

“I got a taste of what computer science is like and the possible careers it could lead to so I wanted to continue learning more, but I didn’t want to completely rearrange my schedule so the mini course was just perfect,” she said. 

Both Richardson and Iyer praised Mihalcea and Wendlant for their enthusiastic instruction and desire to engage students in the material.

“The instructor is amazing from what I’ve experienced so far,” Richardson said. “She’s very excited just to learn and share this knowledge with us and get everyone really interested in computer science so it was a very constructive and exciting environment and I think everyone felt at ease leaving the classroom that first day.”

Though the class has only just begun, Richardson has already expressed an interest in learning even more about computer science in the future.

“Even after just one lecture, and even the act of enrolling in (EECS 198), has made me think about this whole other realm of computer science that I had never considered before.” Richardson said. “Just all of the ways it is applicable to life in general no matter what you’re studying. I’m already looking at what EECS course I can take next semester.”

Mihalcea hopes students will take the skills they learned in EECS 198 and continue to apply it in whatever they decide to pursue.

“If they think of computer science as an option for either right now or down the road— or (if they realize) other areas … involve computer science, so you could do computer science even if you’re doing chemistry or chemical engineering fields — looking at computer science as a field that might as well be for them, I think that would be a win.”