“Computer science is a man’s sport. Why are you here?” Jada Hawkins’ high school computer science teacher asked her. “This isn’t for you.”
This is the reaction the Barnard class of 2016 alumna elicited from her teacher as she, a young woman of color, sat in his class. For Hawkins, such words generated a desire for role models who saw computer science as an opportunity for women, not an unattainable pipe dream. Although she had no intention of pursuing computer science when she came to Barnard, in the spring of her first year, she was on track for the major.
At the end of spring 2017, 45 percent of Columbia’s 788 computer science majors were women, according to computer science professor and chair of Columbia’s department Julia Hirschberg. These kinds of numbers have perhaps created the perception, at least on campus, that the number of women in computer science nationwide is growing.
Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics show the percentage of women graduating with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences has decreased in the past three decades. In the 1983-1984 academic year, 37.1 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees were held by women; by the 2010-2011 academic year, that number had dipped below 20 percent.
But Barnard and Columbia are exceptions to these trends, and interest in computer science at Barnard in particular has grown exponentially. In 2006, Spectator reported that one student out of 556 in Barnard’s class of 2010 expressed interest in computer science. Eleven years later, in spring 2017, Barnard had a total of 69 computer science majors across all years.
However, out of the existing five Seven Sisters women’s colleges in the country—Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, and Mt. Holyoke being the other four—Barnard is the only one without its own computer science department, so far.
“The first conversation [with administrators] I got pulled into my sophomore year, we were still discussing [if] we should build a computer science department,” Hawkins recounts. “‘Does it make sense? Is it helpful?’”
Provost Linda Bell is in the process of making this department a reality. “I attribute a lot of our progress on the computer science side to the demonstrated effort of students to address an interest in building out [a department] at Barnard,” she says.
Bell and former President Debora Spar met with students consistently over a three-year period to gauge what students wanted from Barnard in terms of computer science resources. Based on these meetings, Bell saw that there was a clear interest in finding a computer science chair and eventually creating a department at Barnard.
In fall 2015, Bell told Spectator that Barnard had raised $3 million to fund an endowed computer science department chair. At the time, the college expected to make a hire by spring or fall 2017. But as the search committee began deliberating in spring 2016, Bell says they decided to spend the year “doing an exploration,” rather than rushing to hire someone in the next year.
The faculty-led committee consists of Hirschberg, professor and Chair of the Department of Mathematics David Bayer, mathematics associate professor Daniele De Silva, psychology and neuroscience professor Rae Silver, professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry Rachel Austin, physics professor Tim Halpin-Healy, and associate professor of computer science Martha Kim from the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
The committee is “off and running,” according to Bell, and has determined that it is seeking out candidates with expertise in data sciences, human-computer interaction, or machine learning. Bell intends to make an offer to someone in February or March 2018, so this new faculty member can begin on July 1, 2018. “That’s a normal timetable for faculty searches,” she points out.
The college has also secured the funds to make three postdoctoral appointments—young researchers who will contribute to the new program and help it expand.
“Could we, in a decade, have a relatively large computer science department? Absolutely. Could we, within a few years, have several faculty members? Absolutely,” Bell says.
Barnard has also begun taking steps to encourage pursuits in technology for students not majoring in computer science through the Thinking Technologically and Digitally requirement, which is part of the new Foundations general education curriculum. The construction of the new Milstein Teaching and Learning Center will also include a computational science center, which the college will use to strengthen its tech offerings.
But amidst this administrative momentum, current Barnard computer science students experience frustrations and hurdles when it comes to their major, and have a mix of hopes and uncertainties as a new department moves closer to becoming a reality.
Computer science majors at Barnard have their entire department housed across the street—this includes not only all their major classes, but also their major advising. Historically, Barnard majors have all had the same adviser; Kim became the Barnard adviser in fall 2016. This year, due to the growing influx of Barnard majors, assistant professor Daniel Hsu and associate professor Alexandr Andoni have joined Kim as Barnard advisers.
The department has worked to strengthen its connection with Barnard majors, but Barnard CS majors like Hawkins have noted that they didn’t feel a connection with professors and the computer science community in their classes like they have in their Barnard courses.
The disconnect between the program and Barnard has also manifested in course scheduling issues for current students. Joanne Yoon, a Barnard senior, points to one instance in which she added her name to a class waitlist on Barnard’s Student Planning website only to find that the information never reached Columbia’s SSOL system. Yoon stresses that the “hurdles” she and her peers face are avoidable, and goes as far as to say that students are “doing the administration’s work for them.”
To be a computer scientist at Barnard, you need a fighting spirit. When Columbia Center for Career Education used Lionshare as its job and internship database, Barnard computer science majors had to request special access due to the low number of technology job listings on Barnard’s NACElink website. After Columbia recently switched to Handshake, Barnard computer science majors had to repeat the process to access the large number of tech jobs and opportunities.
Communication issues between the two departments, combined with rigorous courses, can cause students to “fall through the cracks” and drop classes or even the major, Kiyun Kim, a Barnard senior and computer science major, has observed.
In 2013, Nathalie Molina Niño, the head of entrepreneurial programs at the Athena Center and co-founder of Barnard Codes, now the Athena Digital Design Agency, told Spectator that 55 percent of all women who enroll in an introductory computer science class at Columbia drop within the first two weeks.
To help address this, Columbia’s CS department created the Emerging Scholars Program for students without previous coding experience.
The program is designed for students taking Columbia’s introductory course in computer science, COMS 1004, who don’t come in with the same experience, Hirschberg explains. ESP is designed to complement the introductory CS course.
“It’s been extremely successful in helping to keep not just Barnard students, but lots of [students] who didn’t have a background,” Hirschberg explains. The program has been one of the department’s attempts to create a network of students who have a community to which to turn.
Still, the computer science department’s popular introductory courses, Introduction to Computer Science/Programming in Java and Computing in Context, are capped at 400 and 340 students, respectively. These large introductory classes can create a learning experience that feels impersonal, according to Barnard computer science majors.
“You kind of just get lost in the shuffle,” Hawkins says.
When Hawkins took professor Adam Cannon’s COMS 1004 course in the spring of her first year, she had noticed that of the at least 150 students in the class, only 10 to 20 were women. And of these women, she was one of about five black women.
“It didn’t feel inclusive in the way that Barnard classes [usually] do,” Hawkins stresses. “I know that Cannon made a point to talk about these things and be open and be inclusive verbally, but I felt like that wasn’t reflected in the makeup of the class.”
Because finding community on campus can be a challenge for Barnard CS majors, many have filled the void with unique coding and computer science spaces.
One such solution is the Barnard CS Facebook group. Created by Kim, the page is a resource for students to ask questions and find peer support. The group has nearly 80 members and a pinned document titled “The Barnard Student’s Guide to the Computer Science Department (aka how not to die and get your degree)” which introduces students to the ins and outs of the major. Reflecting Yoon’s concern, there is an entire section dedicated to “Logistical Issues,” such as accessing the computer science building, career development services, course registration, and advising.
“We wanted to push for some logistical changes in terms of the department and how it communicates with Barnard and vice versa,” Kim explains. “We wanted to have an established group of people so that we could come as a group to the administration.”
Kim, one of the designated Barnard CS advisers, says that when she has an issue, there is no single person whom she can turn to to address the matter. If she is requesting an exception for a student’s registration, she’ll contact the Registrar. If she has general advising questions, she’ll contact Barnard’s Office of the Dean of Studies. “It depends, there are a number of folks,” she says.
But to fill the social void, students have also formed coding communities through clubs. One such group is the Application Development Initiative, the largest tech organization on campus. Tabara Nosiba, a sophomore at Barnard planning to declare as a computer science major, is a board member of ADI.
Nosiba explains that she’s very active in the community pillar of ADI, which builds a tech community on campus through club meetings, workshops, and panels.
Though these tech groups were present on campus, Hawkins felt the need to create a community that was representative of Barnard itself. Following conversations with administrators at the Athena Center and with fellow computer science majors in her freshman and sophomore years about the lack of Barnard students majoring in computer science, she—along with Niño and Barnard class of 2017 alumnae Marisa Liu and Audrey Copeland—founded ADDA in 2013.
The goal of the agency, Cassidy Mayeda, Barnard senior and current chief of academy at ADDA, explains, is “to be a female-oriented coding space, which is difficult to describe how important that is.”
At ADDA, students can sign up to take an HTML/CSS cocurricular class or a different introductory class, all of which are offered every semester. Each of the two courses takes in up to 40 students per semester. Hawkins was overjoyed at the number of women of color the agency attracted during the first semester of its existence, all of whom were eager to learn the ropes of coding.
Kathryn Kolbert, the director of the Athena Center, says that having an introductory coding community “demystifies the whole notion of being a computer science major” for women who have never coded before.
The mission of the agency also extends beyond just promoting computer science as a major for Barnard students. “Just about anything you do post graduation is going to involve technology,” Kolbert says. “Knowing the language of technology [and] understanding its capabilities is really critical. I think demystifying that for students is really important and we’ve had great success with that.”
According to Bell, the future of computer science at Barnard largely rests on the decisions of whomever the college decides to hire and how it will build a new department from scratch.
“I believe that supply creates its own demand. Within the span of several years, this leader … will be able to shape something incredibly meaningful that builds out computer science in a unique way, not seen anywhere else in any liberal arts college in the country,” Bell says.
However, Hawkins notes that, in her experience, a number of recent Barnard alumnae did not think Barnard should create a computer science department. Since a computer science degree from Columbia has an extremely high ranking for return on investment, some alumnae have expressed concern that Barnard computer science courses would not be comparable in perception to Columbia’s, leading to uncertainty as to how valuable a computer science degree received through Barnard classes would be in comparison.
Some current students also have mixed feelings about the creation of a department. Yoon says she prefers having her computer science coursework take place at Columbia, and would like to see steps towards improved communications between Barnard and Columbia before anything else.
Kim also believes taking smaller steps is more necessary than creating a new department. She says that a new department could “create more problems than it solves,” since it’s unclear whether privileges Barnard CS students currently possess at Columbia would be lost, such as access to the abundance of tech jobs on Columbia’s Handshake job platform and at career fairs.
Nosiba, however, is optimistic about how the creation of the department will improve Barnard’s computer science community.
Mayeda offers a vision of what the department at Barnard could provide to students that Columbia’s does not. She is a teaching assistant for one of the current ADDA courses, and recently had a student, currently enrolled in Columbia’s introductory COMS 1004 course, come up to her and ask, “How do I survive?”
“I want an environment that’s not hyper-competitive, that’s not curved against a whole bunch of other people that have coded before when I haven’t. I want a true introductory coding space,” Mayeda emphasizes. “There is a great desire and need for lower intensity, lower stress computer science education.”
She found the seminar-style and group-oriented classes at Barnard more beneficial to her learning style, and envisions Barnard’s department not mimicking, but complementing the Columbia department.
Similarly for Hawkins, an ideal Barnard department would be one where “you can blend computer science with any discipline.”
Bell is working to make the cross-disciplinary nature of computer science a key facet, if not the essence, of Barnard’s department. Bell says the search committee is currently seeking out candidates whose “scholarly expertise … can be crossed with other disciplinary applications,” such as economics, physics, and digital humanities. And the list goes on.
Hirschberg has high hopes for what the future holds with Barnard’s new department and is eager for the community of female computer scientists to grow on campus.
“As there are more and more Barnard computer science majors, it becomes more comfortable for women and Barnard [students] to become computer science majors, because as you grow the community, it makes it much more fun and welcoming,” she says with a voice that speaks warmly of the future.
Bell echoes this sentiment: “There is a huge and growing interest at Barnard, and we’re going to see growth over the next several years. I predict this person we bring in is going to really catapult that forward.”
Built with intention, a departmental presence on Barnard’s campus could boost this momentum to build a generation of Barnard alumnae in the field of technology—a generation that can set examples for students to come. Hawkins puts it best: “I like to say that you can’t be what you can’t see.”