So it’s 2014, and somehow the smartest person in the room might also be the only woman in the room. Lauren Slusky always knows how many women are in her computer science courses at the University of Manitoba, because she counts them — if any. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who counts women in my classes,” laughed Diana Carrier. Doesn’t take great counting skills, said Slusky: “In third year and higher, only three per cent are women.” U of M’s official figures say 19 of the current 144 computer science majors are women, the program with the greatest gender disparity on a campus on which the majority of students is female. Officials were not immediately available to discuss the program\’s gender disparity. Of those 19 students, 11 are heading to Montreal in March to compete as the first-ever all-woman team in the international CS Games. “It’s definitely unprecedented,” said Carrier, a Stonewall Collegiate grad. Three days in Montreal, most of it spent online doing things most of us wouldn’t understand. The CS Games aren’t high-powered in terms of big prizes but there are usually recruiters there from outfits such as Google or Microsoft — you might have heard of them. “The ultimate best case is you get hired by Google or Microsoft,” said Carrier. “You can put it on your resumé,” pointed out Shelby Bernhard, a Westwood Collegiate grad. The young women cite plenty of reasons women are so few in computer science — a lack of early and ongoing encouragement to get into the field, few specific programs in high school, the whole nerd stereotype, which they reject, but which they say some boys and young men embrace. Even toy stores still push boys towards science stuff and girls to the Barbies, the women said. “My high school only had three people in computer science — I was one of them,” said Carrier. Slusky, a grad of the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, said computer science students have a rep among other students: “When you try to talk to someone in your class, they kind of move away from you,” she laughed. “The girls who go into computer science are quite determined,” declared Vanessa Reimer, a grad of Steinbach Regional Secondary School. “My teacher (in high school) was the one who encouraged me — he saw I was good,” said Glenlawn Collegiate grad Caitlin Martins. Yes, there is a men’s team going from U of M as well, and there’ll be a few women scattered among the dozens of teams competing. U of M has covered the women’s registration, but they’re hoping for sponsors to pay for their air fare to Montreal. You can help at CSgirls2014@gmail.com. via Women-only team a first at competition – Winnipeg Free Press.
As the first semester wraps up, I reflect on my teaching and decided to discuss a question that has been on my mind, is Computer Science a Natural Science? In my Theory of Knowledge course, we examine the natural sciences as an area of knowledge and make definitions for what natural science is and isn’t. The traditional view of the natural sciences includes physics, chemistry, and biology. However, in the modern era, these categories are expanding along with societies view of them. For example, the I.B. now has moved Computer Science into the natural sciences section of it’s disciples along with some other non-traditional “sciences” like Sports & exercise. This paradigm shift has caused many to question the broadening definition, and is moving away from what “science” stands for. The traditional view of Computer Science was to see it as an offshoot of mathematics or engineering, but can it fit the definition for being a “science”? A working definition of “science” could be that it is a method to speculate through hypothesis, define models to explain phenomenon and behaviors, make predictions, execute testing, and refine and re-examine as necessary (therefore restarting the method in a self-correcting manner). There is no doubt that science follows a method often called the “scientific method” but the actual order and classification of the steps in that method are often contestable. The traditional view of the scientific method is know as inductivism and consists of five key concepts:
Here we see some similarities to the discipline of Computer Science, but also some vital differences. The most striking difference between Computer Science and traditional natural sciences like physics, chemistry and biology is that those disciplines study the natural world, and Computer Science tend to study man-made objects. This is also the argument why mathematics is not a science as it conceptually studies man-made concepts within mathematics. But perhaps the definition of “natural science” is not meaningful here, and instead we should just focus on the definition of “science”. If we can define science as a method, then Computer Science can be shown to follow specific methods like traditional inductivism. Recently, the University of Manitoba’s chapter of the national Let’s Talk Science (LTS) program included a new workshop on Computer Science. This organization is described on their website as:
Let’s Talk Science is an award-winning, national, charitable organization. We create and deliver unique learning programs and services that engage children, youth and educators in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)
And the U of M has added a workshop on Computer Science that one volunteer described as a highlight of this year’s workshops. The workshop called “Crazy Cryptography” teaches the basic tenets of Computer Science. By taking something like a video game and breaking it down into small tasks that are feasible for each individual to do. This can show kids that computer programming is more of a teamwork challenge. It also shows kids how to code – like a secret message. It gets kids to understand that you need to have the programming side of the message to get the other half of the message. It’s important, she says, because basic computer programming skills are not emphasized in schools, even though computers are ubiquitous. Do these examples of Computer Science being treated like a science add to it’s legitamacy? Or does the definition of science and the general understanding of science still leave Computer Science insufficient in it’s ability to meet the criteria? Peter Denning has stated “Computer science meets every criterion for being a science, but it has a self-inflicted credibility problem.” and wrote a short paper on the matter. In my opinion, Computer Science is not a “natural science” but can be defined as a “science”.
Well this past Friday, May 24th was the 5th annual High School Computer Science day at the University of Manitoba (see the link here), and it was the largest and best organized yet. This year brought 23 of my grade 12, 11, and 10 students. The event itself had over 100 students from Manitoba high schools and their Computer Science teachers. It was the lead professor for the event that pointed out to me that I brought more students this year, than we had in total from all the schools the first year this event occurred. The day consists of university tours of the Computer Science department in the Engineering building, including looking at graduate work in the autonomous agents lab, bioinfomatics, human-computer interaction, and a tour of the universities super-computer center. As well, the students are given a presentation about the Computer Science co-op program and several undergraduate and masters students shared their experiences with the students. After a free lunch and a “swag” bag for the kids, the afternoon consists of two competitions or an opportunity to learn in some workshops. The workshops give the students who are not competing a chance to learn elementary Java programming, or more advanced Java programming in a university computer lab. The competition side had two components. First, a programming competition (the original purpose of the first high school day) where students are given 6 programming problems to solve. The students work in teams of 3 using one computer and try to solve as many problems as possible as fast a possible. Sturgeon Heights has a
proud tradition of winning all but one of these competitions since the first annual event. This year, however was a “building” year and my teams of mostly grade 11 students represented well but did not win this year and the top prize went to River East Collegiate. However, the other competition this year, was the first annual Computer Science fair. Analogous to a traditional Science fair, the students show off programming projects they have been working on during the school year and are judged by masters students and scored. Sturgeon Heights grade 12 student Kris Rivet proudly won the first annual Computer Science fair with his project and a nice trophy for our school (see picture). Many of my other students also did very well and represented the school very well in the fair. It was a fantastic day for me to bond with my students and share memories of my experiences. As well, during the tours, one of the masters student giving the kids presentations like in the robotics lab was a former graduate of my Computer Science program and a student from the first graduating class of Sturgeon Heights after amalgamation. Thanks also goes out to two undergraduate students from the department who have selflessly volunteered their own time over the last two months to come in during lunch and all afternoon to the school to help out, train, and prepare students for this day. Former student graduate of my Computer Science program Zach Havens first contacted me and through conversation volunteered to come in. In a further conversation I had with him about my desire to bring more girls into Computer Science (see my previous post about this here), he suggested that he had a fellow undergraduate Computer Science student who could come in and act as a mentor for the girls. Third year Computer Science student Vanessa Reimer also selflessly volunteered her time to help out kids in a school she didn’t even previously attend. It was over the weekend that I received a truly touching thank you letter from her, where she outlined that she is now become a mentor on the She++ website (see the link here) to encourage females to enter Computer Science due to her work with my female students. This day was a wonderful day for the students to enjoy and for me to feel truly proud of the highest caliber of Computer Science students I have at my school. Now, back to work Monday and we try to win both competitions next year!