Tag Archives: education

There Should Be More Women in Computer Science

What would be of TV comedy without stereotypes? Certainly very different, considering that the most watched sitcom in the past season relies heavily on the view that a blonde girl’s I.Q. could be higher, and that tech and science oriented guys have disastrous performance in the social arena.

Although shows like The Big Bang Theory (and the british-equivalent, The IT Crowd) obviously do not aim at influencing the career paths of young teenagers, unfortunately they fuel the perception that tech and science are for socially-awkward geeks — a perception that drives people away from these fields, specially women in Computer Science.

According to the The National Center for Women & Information Technology, in 2010 only 18 percent of Computer and Information Science graduates were women. Down from 37 percent, in 1985. And data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows the downhill-trend continuing: 17.4 percent in 2012.

Why bother this gender inequality in IT? For two main reasons. The first concerns the benefits of diversity in the workforce: a more diverse pool implies a higher probability of reaching qualified workers, fostering creativity and innovation. Second, and more important, since technology is pervasive in all professions and personal activities, a lot of women’s demands are being neglected, for computational tools are developed by a working class formed mostly by men.

Women certainly have the skills required. In fact, according to a recent study in the U.K., based on the BTEC vocational qualifications exam, girls outperform boys in skills-based science and technology subjects. In particular, as reported by BBC, 15% of the girls taking the more challenging level gained the top grade — compared to 12% of the boys.

Aware of the problem, some schools are taking action to get more women in technology. At University of Texas (Austin) and Virginia Tech, for instance, new female students are put in shared housing with more experienced engineering students of the same gender. The initiative reduces intimidation (with respect to the male majority) and creates a sense of community. At NYU Poly, a summer program on cyber-security designed only for high-school girls was offered this year. Many attendees welcomed the initiative, claiming they feel more comfortable without the company of guys who “brag so much.” Similarly, Cornel NYC Tech teamed with nonprofit Girls Who Code to offer an 8-week intensive Computer Science course for middle school girls.

These are all interesting ideas, but unless they are adopted by most schools, hardly the gender gap numbers will change significantly. Since the nature of the problem is cultural, it would be better if big influencers, and women themselves, approached tech-related occupations in a way that is not so biased. Considering the enormous gender gap, women’s capacity, and the fact that IT occupations are projected to grow by 22 percent from 2010 to 2020 in the U.S., adding 758,800 new jobs (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), Computer Science is now probably the best option for girls deciding on their careers.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

There Are Some Good Educative Channels on YouTube, But There Should Be More


An interesting set of smart, well produced, educative channels have emerged on YouTube in the last couple of years. Though YouTube, in general, degenerated to something resembling television, some educational series are really worth the extra time spent watching ads.

That there are internet based educative programs is no news. Universities have been offering online courses for many years now, iTunes has a whole section dedicated to educative videos (iTunes U), Massive Open Online Course websites are starting to pop-up (see Coursera and Udacity, for instance), and of course there’s TED. But in what concerns YouTube, a user-generated database where the popularity of videos is guided more by a survival-of-the-fittest rule than by an intelligent-design principle, it took a while for educative content to get notoriety.

But it eventually happened. At the top of the list, Crash Course, a channel created by two brothers who themselves evolved from authors of futile content, and MinutePhysics, a series of short lectures on physics that can be fairly described as the video version of XKCD with more modest qualifications in the comic area.

Crash Course is run by John and Hank Green, who became YouTube sensations by making a channel out of video messages to each other during a year (the Brotherhood 2.0 project). Crash Course consists of a series of 10-ish minutes long lessons, at first in World History (by John) and Biology (by Hank). Those courses finished and the brothers now teach English Literature and Ecology, respectively. The subjects are somehow irrelevant, though. What makes them worth watching are mainly the writing and performing skills of the guys, specially John, who often engages in clever jokes and interesting self-conscious footnotes about society and the process of reaching adulthood. The dialogs between him and his younger version, a student he refers to as “me from the past,” are just brilliant. Take a look at the first episode of the World History series, for instance.

MinutePhysics, by Henry Reich, deserves a bit more credit for the content. The channel features short videos, with hand-drawn frames, about physics. Topics range from the popular Shrodinger’s Cat thought experiment to an open letter to President Obama about the outdated high-school physics curriculum in the U.S. Though Reich is certainly not the first specialist that steps down to the layperson level to teach advanced physics, he is the first to successfully approach the YouTube format, at least if you measure by the number of subscribers.

As of late January 2013, MinutePhysics had about 950 thousand subscribers, ranking 170 among all channels, according to that criterium. In comparison, Apple’s channel is at position 176. Crash Course appeared in the 484th position, with about 450,000 subscribers, passing, for instance, CBS’s channel (534th).

There are of course a few other good examples of high-quality educative channels, such as Sixty Symbols (for the physics aficionado), and OULearn (for a sample, watch their “60 seconds adventures” series in economics and thought). But this is not meant to be a complete list. The point is that, thankfully, it’s not necessary to “follow the crowd” and explore the ridiculous, the laughable, the sex appealing, the feline, or the equine (I’m looking at you, Gangnam Style and your parodies), to become popular on YouTube.

What makes video lessons interesting is obvious: due to the multi-media nature of the format (audio, text, images, animations), more complex information can be transmitted, generally faster than in any other “unidirectional” way. Yet, most educators still chose writing a book when the thought of sharing knowledge comes to mind. Perhaps that’s the right choice in certain areas (such as math and philosophy) where some reflexion should happen after information is acquired, or maybe authors don’t have the skills to produce video content of good quality. However, considering that tools for video production are widely available (most laptops these days come with cameras and Movie editors), and that video sharing online is easy and free, video is definitely underused as a media for knowledge transmission, specially in times where time is so scarce.

Now, if you are planing to launch yourself on a vlog journey, even if it’s just for the sake of making a name, consider that, as Oliver and Young wrote many decades before even the Internet existed, “t’aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” Or, as Crash Course’s John Green always mentions to finish his lessons, “don’t forget to be awesome.”

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)