How computer science sets its students up for failure


Last spring, Jean Sammet ’48, one of the first computer programmers ever, came to campus to give a talk. As a computer science minor, I eagerly attended in order to gain advice and insight about my field. During the talk, she shared information that stood out to me: The vast majority of the first computer programmers were women. Since, according to U.S. News, only around 18 percent of computer science majors today are women, I began to wonder when this changed. I stumbled upon an NPR Planet Money episode titled “When Women Stopped Coding.” When computers started becoming more common, they were marketed heavily toward men. In the 1980s, it was common for men to have grown up using computers. It was less so for women. Young men were often coming into classes with that advantage, and young women became discouraged by their obvious disadvantage of simply being less familiar with computers. 

As soon as I listened to it, I realized I saw that happening here. The difference was not split along gendered lines, but people who came here with previous computer science coursework in high school were clearly the ones excelling.  A former Computer Science 101 student said, “[The course] claimed if you had no experience it would be fine. But it was pretty clear that if you had no computer science background, you had a huge handicap.” The student ended up having to take the course pass-fail. Several other computer science students echoed the same idea. One of the students came to Mount Holyoke fully expecting to major in computer science. She told me that she felt the learning curve was so steep she could not keep up, and felt the only students doing well had some computer science background before they came to Mount Holyoke. 

The assignment that turns away the most people is Tetris, a large project in Computer Science 201 that is given over a few weeks. On the first version of this assignment, several people pulled all nighters all week. I spent around 30 hours in the lab that week with plenty of help from lab instructors and teaching assistants, and I received a failing grade. 

My situation was not unusual. The day this first version was due, we had to present to the entire lab how far in the assignment we were. I know students who skipped the lab because they felt ashamed at having such a difficult time. A few students dropped the class around the time of the Tetris assignment. 

Aside from its demoralizing nature, I did not find it effective in meeting its goal of having us become more independent. Professors told us that they wanted to see how we would tackle such a large assignment on our own. However, having so much to do made me more reliant on the TAs. I knew I only had so many hours in a week, so I only came to the lab during TA hours to use my time most effectively. I simply did not have time to figure out my problems by myself, or I would never have been able to finish my assignments. 

How does this expectation of spending so much time on assignments affect low-income students? I spoke with a Boston University alum who studied computer science. He took a fourth-semester computer science class with a comparable amount of work to our classes, and ended up dropping the course because he also had a full-time job. I also sometimes wonder if the curriculum would be different if Mount Holyoke were not a women’s college. I have not seen enough empirical research to make a claim either way, but a lot of behavior I have witnessed is typically associated with women. Students consistently downplay what a hard time they are having to professors for fear of disappointing them or hurting their feelings. It is rare for a student to speak up candidly about how much they are struggling. When students are having difficulties, many believe it is their own fault. If I had a penny for every time I heard a student in the lab say they were “dumb” or “bad” at programming, I would have the salary of a software engineer at Google. 

I have had multiple people tell me that they would love to learn how to code, but they have heard how much time the program requires and have thus not taken a single course. Part of Mount Holyoke’s mission is to place more women in STEM fields, and the college is a recruiting place for companies such as YouTube and Facebook. Clearly, the computer science program is working for some people. But can it be called successful when it is pushing away so many others who genuinely want to learn how to program?