Less ‘geeky’ classrooms can attract girls to computer science

Washington :Making classrooms less ‘geeky’ – by including art and nature pictures instead of ‘Star Trek’ posters – could woo three times more girls into taking up a computer science class, scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have found.

Women lag behind men in the lucrative computer science and technology industries, and one of the possible contributors to this disparity is that they are less likely to enroll in introductory computer science courses, researchers said.

The study of 270 high school students found that three times as many girls were interested in enrolling in a computer science class if the classroom was redesigned to be less “geeky” and more inviting.

“Our findings show that classroom design matters – it can transmit stereotypes to high school students about who belongs and who doesn’t in computer science,” said lead author Allison Master, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

“Identity and a sense of belonging are important for adolescents. Our approach reveals a new way to draw girls into pipeline courses,” said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS, who co-authored the study with Sapna Cheryan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

“It is intriguing that the learning environment plays such a significant role in engaging high school girls in computer science,” Meltzoff said.

In the study, high school boys and girls (aged 14 to 18 years) completed questions about their interest in enrolling and their sense of belonging in a computer science class, and how much they thought they personally “fit” the computer science stereotype.

The researchers then showed the students photos of two different computer science classrooms decorated with objects that represented either the “geeky” computer science stereotype, including computer parts and “Star Trek” posters, or a non-stereotypical classroom containing items such as art and nature pictures.

Students had to say which classroom they preferred, and then answered questions about their interest in enrolling in a computer science course and their thoughts and feelings about computer science and stereotypes.

Girls (68 per cent) were more likely than boys (48 per cent) to prefer the non-stereotypical classroom. Girls were almost three times more likely to say they would be interested in enrolling in a computer science course if the classroom looked like the non-stereotypical one.

Boys did not prefer one classroom’s physical environment over the other, and how the classroom looked did not change boys’ level of interest in computer science.

The study was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.