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Dr. Andrea Bunt, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science. Photo courtesy of Kira Koop.

‘It’s not just about computers’: A more inclusive model of computer science

November 18, 2017 — 

For a successful associate professor of Computer Science, Andrea Bunt wasn’t too thrilled about her field at the outset. “I didn’t see myself working in [it]. What excited me about computer science was using computers as a tool to explore other issues.”

For Bunt, computers have always been simply a means to an end. After her initial start in university as a Math major, she found herself compelled to take a computer science course. To her surprise, she ended up liking it a lot. Simply put, it fit the way she thought. Despite nervousness that she didn’t know as much as her male classmates, her father’s reassurance kept her going.

“I was very lucky that when I had … questions and concerns, I had a computer science prof for a father, who could say ‘That’s not what that course is teaching’… ‘That’s not a thing that you need to know right now’… so I could get a lot of reassurance.”

Sadly, Bunt’s early feelings of insecurity were not unique. A variety of studies that have found that, as a result, there are many fewer females in computer science than other STEM subjects. “We hover at around ten percent. It’s quite low.”

“In first year courses, female students are often intimidated by these male students who have been programming for fun and sound like they know a lot when they don’t necessarily.  They’ll start using acronyms … [and asking] off-topic questions in class, so a lot of female students will say ‘Oh, I don’t know this. I don’t fit here. I’m not going to excel here….

“It’s not even necessarily a self-esteem issue, because they might feel completely competent generally scholastically but not necessarily in computers, partly because of the misconception of what it means to be a good computer scientist. Being a good computer scientist does not mean that you can list off a hundred different acronyms, or that you know one more programming language than someone else does… It’s really about the problem solving.”

Dr. Andrea Bunt and students. Photo courtesy Kira Koop.

Dr. Andrea Bunt and students. Photo courtesy Kira Koop.

Bunt’s chosen field of study within computer science is human-computer interaction (also known as HCI), which had its start in the early 80’s. HCI researches the design and use of computer technology, focusing on the interface between people and computers, with the ultimate goal of improving usefulness of computers. Over the past thirty years, HCI has become an accepted field, and is distinctive due to the fact that it is more balanced in its ratio of male to female researchers. This is unlike longstanding areas of computer science such as software engineering or artificial intelligence, which are typically male-dominated.

Bunt’s research focuses on online tutorials and how to assess and categorize online responses in an effort to improve users’ experience and the tutorial’s utility.  “[We’re] looking at how people learn software and how we can develop tools to better support software learning, particularly by more experienced people…

“[Nowadays, people] learn through tutorials that other people have posted [and] while that has some advantages over a book, it also has disadvantages, [one of] which is anybody can create a tutorial, [but it] doesn’t mean it’s going to be good…

“We in particular looked at … ways to organize all of the tutorials to make it easier for people to figure out what they might want to follow. We’ve also looked at incorporating contributions that other people have made through comments. …[P]eople actually post very constructive comments to tutorials, but they’re typically located at the end…[which means] you have to read through them all…. We’ve looked at different ways [to] organize that information, and how that impacts how people would do a tutorial.”

When asked if she would prefer her own young daughters to become scientists, Bunt is enthusiastic:

“I think careers in science are fantastic, so I would definitely encourage them… There are a lot of jobs, they pay well … it’s interesting work.”

The question is: are things improving when it comes to girls feeling confident about entering computer science? “[I]t’s getting better in some ways. I think computer science is still unfortunately pushing up against a lot of stereotypes, and there’s a bit of a momentum problem… in terms of convincing younger girls that this is a career path for them that they’re going to feel comfortable in … I don’t think females are being told … that they can’t do it, but when they look in a room and they don’t see themselves represented, that’s going to be an implicit message. I think that’s the challenge.”

Bunt references renowned computer scientist Dr. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College in California, who has pointed out that there is a plethora of shows about doctors that make that profession seem glamorous and desirable.  When it comes to computer science, however, there is a distinct image problem. The few television shows that feature computer scientists show a bunch of socially awkward men who seemingly do nothing but sit in front of their computer screens all day. As a result, young women and girls aren’t seeing a lot of positive messages about what might be in store for them if they decide to become computer scientists.

Bunt believes it’s an image problem that needs to be solved, if the field of computer science has any hope of increasing female enrollment. She is emphatic that things won’t change until there are more women at all levels, including senior management. 

“There are two reasons I want to see more women in computer science:  First of all, these are good careers, and I would hate for women to not be given the same opportunity… It’s one of the highest paid professions coming out of an undergraduate degree… [Secondly], technology is everywhere and if it’s being designed by men exclusively, it’s not going to suit the needs of women to the same degree. … [W]e need more women’s voices.”

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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