As Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe strolled her Southern California campus recently, she stopped to talk with Lillian de Greef, a senior eager to discuss her plans to pursue a graduate degree in computer science. De Greef entered Mudd as a technology novice and, like a growing number of women at the school, she’s now fluent in multiple programming languages. “I just really enjoy learning about all this stuff, writing the code,” she says.
De Greef’s enthusiasm is a testament to the quiet revolution waged by Klawe, 60, since she arrived in 2006 from Princeton University, where she was dean of the engineering school. On her watch, the percentage of female computer science majors at Mudd, one of California’s prestigious Claremont colleges, has more than tripled, to 42 percent. Nationally, women account for 14 percent of college graduates in the field, according to the Computing Research Association.
Harvey Mudd was already revamping its computer science curriculum when Klawe arrived, and she sped up the plans. Until 2005 the mandatory introductory computer science course taught the Java programming language, which has fallen out of favor with many modern developers. Novices were thrown in with experienced programmers, and in some years those who went on to pursue a computer science degree were 95 percent male.
The introductory course is now broken into three sections—one for those with some background in programming, another for beginners, and a third with a slant toward biology. “CS for Scientists,” as the introductory course is nicknamed, focuses on teaching problem-solving skills that can be applied to engineering, math, and other subjects. Instead of Java, the class uses the Python language, which has simpler rules and is easier to deploy in Web applications. One of the overarching goals is to “demystify the inner workings of a computer,” according to the course website.
I met Maria Klawe briefly after she gave a keynote at the Grace Hopper conference in 2007. She is great, and this photo of her is great.