School of Computer Science

Carol Frieze, Ph.D.

Office: Gates 4115
Phone: 412-268-9071

email: cfrieze @

CRA-W The Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of
Women in Computing Research
CREU: Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates in
Computer Science and Engineering

Our CREU Project Title: Motivation, Persistence and Success in Computer Science: What Can Computer Science Seniors Tell Us?

Our CREU team 2004-2005: Belinda Chang (left) and Catherine Fan (center)

View Final Report


Belinda Chang
Major: Computer Science, Senior
I’m currently pursuing a double major in Psychology. Next semester, I’ll be taking Social Psychology.
The topic of women in Computer Science has always been one that is closeto my heart. Currently, I am invovled with SWE(Society of Women Engineers) and Women@SCS(a group at CMU supporting the women in the computer science school). Through these groups, I have served to promote women in Computer Science to the underclassmen women and also to local middle school and high school girls. I helped to organized outreach events to encourage local girls to pursue engineering and science careers. In addition, I have also served as a mentor in Women@SCS's Big/Little Sister program. The Big/Little Sister program serves to strengthen bonds between the women in the Computer Science school, serving as a means for first year girls to have someone in the department that they can look to for guidence. Actually Catherine Fan, who is also a contributor to this project, was one of my little sisters. The research that this project produces will continue to allow me to serve as a role model and mentor.
Catherine Fan
Major: Computer Science, Junior

I will be working alongside the director of Women at Computer Science (Women@SCS) organization, which aims to increase female participation in the field of computer science. The other member in our team is Belinda Chang, my "big sister" mentor with whom I was paired during my freshman year in the "Big Sister-Little Sister" mentor program, organized by Women@SCS. Together, we are eager to understand the reason why so many of our peers, both male and female, have left the field, and what keeps the rest of us determined to achieve a degree in Computer Science. It is a rare opportunity for us to be able to work together on a project which directly involves our lives as well as our classmates.

Our proposal

Title: Motivation, Persistence and Success in Computer Science: What Can Computer Science Seniors Tell Us?

General Project Description
We propose a CREU study that will be part of an ongoing line of investigation into the culture of computing among computer science undergraduate students at Carnegie Mellon. This line of investigation began with the intensive studies of Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher (1994-99) culminating in the book “Unlocking the Clubhouse”. Since then, Carol Frieze and Lenore Blum have conducted studies of computer science seniors from the 2002 class and are about to begin a study of the 2004 class. In the 2002 study they found many similarities to the early studies. In addition, they discovered some surprising changes e.g. a more balanced environment had started to yield similar spectrums of interests and motivation in both genders. It was these changes that prompted further investigation and the current study.
In Spring of 2004 Frieze conducted 50 interviews with seniors, men and women, from the 2004 class. Our latest study will involve examining these transcripts, along with 33 transcripts from the 2002 study, and the baseline research from Margolis and Fisher. Thus, there now exists a wealth of material for assessing changes, similarities and differences, among undergraduates in computer science at Carnegie Mellon.

The CREU study will be one part of the larger study and the CREU team will focus on specific topics of investigation based on a selection of interview questions (approximately 5 out of over 50). The CREU team will be the first to examine this new material. They will be looking at what motivates students to enter a computer science major, what factors contribute to staying in the major and ultimately to graduating with a degree in computer science. They will be looking specifically at gender similarities and differences and their findings will be placed in the context of other research studies on these issues.

Specific Questions/Hypotheses (to be addressed)
a) General background data search: what are current reports showing with regards to numbers of women in computer science programs at universities? (looking at institutions comparable to Carnegie Mellon)
b) Have the numbers increased/decreased over the past 10 years?
c) What are the numbers at Carnegie Mellon? Have the numbers increased/decreased over the past 10 years?
d) What do some of the major papers on women and computer science suggest as the primary motivations for women (and men) coming into a computer science major?
e) How does age affect motivational factors and what might be the optimal age to
target interest in computer science?
f) What do some of the major papers suggest as determining factors for women/men to persist in the computer science major?
g) How does the motivation, persistence and success of students who enter computer science majors with little or no computing background compare to those who enter with strong backgrounds?

Findings from above will be compared to findings from specific questions (that we believe relate to issues of motivation, persistence and success) from interviews with Carnegie Mellon students with a view to answering the following (however, as the research unfolds we expect new hypotheses to arise):

  • What have been the primary motivations for women, and for men, coming into the computer science major at Carnegie Mellon and what factors have kept them going?
  • Are there marked gender similarities? differences?
  • How do these findings compare with findings from major reports and papers?
  • Are gender similarities more to the foreground at Carnegie Mellon than generally assumed according to current research? Can we hypothesize that a gender “balanced” environment is contributing to these findings?

Methods (to be utilized, including background research to be studied)
Background reading: becoming familiar with majors papers and reports on women and computer science (see References and Suggested Reading list). Researching Internet and library: becoming comfortable with summarizing notes and conclusions of papers, reports and latest findings.
Some transcribing of audio tapes, analysis of interview transcripts, thorough reading of transcripts and charting of quantitative data, and analysis of qualitative data. We may find we need to supplement our transcripts with surveys of other computer science undergraduates. Comparing the responses of men and women students and looking for similarities and differences. Comparing Carnegie Mellon findings with general findings.

Suggested Readings and References
Almstrum, V. What Is the Attraction to Computing? Communications of the ACM, Sept. 2003/vol. 46. No. 9 pp. 51-55
Barnett, R. and Caryl Rivers. Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, Basic Books, 2004
Blum, L. Transforming the Culture of Computing at Carnegie Mellon, Computing ResearchNews, vol. 13, No.5, November 2001. p.2.
Blum, L. Women in Computer Science:The Carnegie Mellon Experience. In Resnick D.P.and Scott , D., eds., The University of the Future: The Future of the University. 2001.
Blum, L. and Frieze, C. As the Culture of Computing Evolves, Similarity can be the Difference
Borg, Anita. What draws Women to and Keeps Women in Computing at Institute for Women and Technology, May 1999, The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol 869.
Camp, T. The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline. Communications of the ACM, 40 (10): 103-110, 1997.
Camp, T. The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline Unlikely to Reverse, ACM-W, January, 2000.
Camp, T. Women in Computer Science: Reversing the Trend CRA-W August, 2001
Fisher, A., Margolis, J., Miller, F. Anatomy of Interest: Women in Undergraduate Computer Science. 28 (1 & 2): 104-126, 2000.
Fisher, A., Margolis, J., Miller, F. Caring About Connections: Gender and Computing. Technology and Society, 13-20, 2000.
Frieze, Carol, and Blum, Lenore. Building an Effective Computer Science Student Organization: The Carnegie Mellon Women@SCS Action Plan
Inroads SIGCSE Bulletin Women in Computing;, 2002, June, p. 74-78
Margolis, J. and Fisher, Allan. 2002 Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (MIT Press).
Margolis,J., Fisher, A. and Miller, F. Geek Mythology
Margolis,J., Fisher, A. and Miller, F. Computing for a Purpose: Gender and Attachment to Computer Science
Schofield, Janet Ward. 1995. Computers and Classroom Culture New York: Cambridge University Press.
Seymour E. and Hewitt N. Talking about Leaving: Why undergraduates leave the Sciences, Boulder:Westview Press, 1997
Spertus, Ellen. 1991. Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?
Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age Tech-Savvy is the culmination of two years of work by the AAUW Educational Foundation Commission on Technology, Gender, and Teacher Education.


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