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2006-10-26 12:18 PM
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OSU trying to attract women to computer sciences with new courses, programs

Daily Reporter Staff Writer

Throughout the lifespan of the information technology field, men have dominated its workforce, but Ohio State University's computer science department is hoping to change that.

In the past couple of years, the department has started programs and created new courses designed to entice women and other groups into majoring in a computer science field.

"We're doing more and more to recruit (women) and other underserved groups," said Bettina Bair, a senior lecturer in the Ohio State University Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

For instance, this Fall, the department started offering two new computer courses that are "more interesting" than typical computer science courses.

The courses, "Computing Fundamentals in Context: Creative Interactive Media" and "Computing Fundamentals in Context: Digital Images and Sounds," emphasize more creative uses of technology, said Bair.

"When enrollment (in computer majors) dropped off, we started getting more creative in what we were offering," she said.

She also said that men and women often have different tastes when it comes to the computer field and that the university is adapting its curriculum to recognize those differences.

"Young men are motivated by working with the intrinsic workings of computers, (but) that alienates a lot of women," said Bair, who also oversees the department's diversity program.

The goal of the department is to get more women enrolled in computer majors and thus send more women into the IT workforce.

Although women comprise have of the total workforce in the U.S., they represent only 25 percent of all IT workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau.

Women's interest in computer science fell 80 percent between 1998 and 2004, and only 0.3 percent of incoming freshmen women in 2004 expressed an interest in majoring in computer science, according to the Higher Education Research Institute.

But if Ohio State's computer science and engineering department can offer courses and programs that are more appealing to women, that number should increase, Bair said.

"Women will stick with the introductory curriculum if they feel it's related to the real world ... if it's shown to be applicable to something that's interesting," said Bair. "Research has shown that some groups of people are not motivated by certain (tasks)."

She said part of the effort is to demonstrate to women that information technology can be a fun and interesting career.

"A lot of women think that it's sitting alone in a dark room or it's about creating video games. We want to dispel those myths," Bair said.

The effort to attract more female computer majors is not limited to the classroom, either.

Last year, Ohio State joined the National Center for Women Information Technology's Academic Alliance. Three years ago, the school started a chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery Committee on Women, which promotes students to engage in activities and projects that "aim to improve the working and learning environments for women in computing."

There is also The Women In Computer Engineering project, an "innovative and holistic approach" to improving the recruitment and retention of women in the computer science and engineering undergraduate education program.

Through TWiCE, undergraduate women with an interest in computing are given opportunities to gain a new perspective toward career possibilities in information technology.

Members of TWiCE can get paid to do research, work on a local industry project, teach computing to kids or help a charity or non-profit with their technical needs.

OSU also sponsored the first Ohio Celebration of Women in Computing conference earlier this year that attracted more than 100 female computer scientists from the academic and business worlds. A second one is planned for February.

One significant factor that could draw more women into the IT field is availability of jobs, said Bair.

Demand for all information technology professionals will grow nearly 50 percent between now and 2012, according to a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Places like Google and Microsoft are hiring a lot of people, and to fill those positions they're looking at women and other underrepresented groups," said Bair.

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