Now it’s the administrators’ turn to find out what a group of teachers already learned about gender equity and technology.

This summer, a group of computer science teachers well-versed in the intricacies of gender equity will meet in Denver to discuss institutional strategies with their school administrators.

The three-day follow-up to a three-year intensive gender-equity education program may be the final stage in an effort to make sure computer science teachers know how to help girls help themselves to learn advanced computer skills.

“We’re bringing in a group of teachers who have been through [a summer training program on gender equity], as well as administrators from their schools, to discuss how to deal with diversity and gender equity in computer classes,” said Allan Fisher, president of the Carnegie Mellon technology education program and summer institute cofounder.

The group plans to spend time in workshops talking about how teachers and decision-makers can work together and listening to keynote speeches from experts on gender issues. “We’re also working on putting out a live web cast, so teachers around the country can ask questions,” added Fisher.

For the past three summers (1997-99), researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the Seattle-based Washington Research Institute have run a summer training program aimed at giving computer science teachers across the country the training they need to encourage girls to take computer classes—and gain the all-important familiarity they need to be a part of the digital workplace.

According to Dave Pevovar, advanced placement (AP) computer science teacher at Central Kitsap High in Silverdale, Wash., and a 1998 participant, the three-year program trained 80 educators each summer, for a total of 240 attendees. That’s about one-quarter of all AP computer science teachers in the United States, he estimated.

The program, which took place during a week each summer at Carnegie Mellon, was competitive, with each applicant selected based on his or her experience and background. “They really tried to get a wide representation of educators from across the country,” Pevovar noted, adding there probably were no more than two people from any state at his session.

The program was conceived when the College Board announced its plan to change the AP computer science exam from a PASCAL-based test to one based on the newer C++ computer language.

The National Science Foundation funded the training institute for educators eager to learn the new language—and, at the same time, ensure that all students receive equal encouragement in computer science classes.

According to a study released in April by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), girls continue to be underrepresented in an increasingly computer-dominated culture.

As reported in the May issue of eSchool News, the report, called “Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age,” revealed that girls are not participating in computer clubs and are taking far fewer programming and computer science classes than their male counterparts.

In fact, according to the College Board, the body that administers the AP exams to high school students, less than 17 percent of the exam-takers for the introductory AP computer science test in 1999 were girls.

Even more dramatic was the lack of female representation in the more advanced AP computer science exam. Just 622 girls took the upper-level AP computer science exam in 1999 out of 5,997 students, a mere 10.4 percent. Those figures were actually down from 1998, when 19 percent of lower-level and 12 percent of upper-level exam-takers were girls.

“My guess would be these figures have to do with socialization,” said Jeffery Penn, a spokesman for the College Board. “Across the board, men tend to do better in exams that deal with spatial reasoning. I can’t imagine that it is innate, but I speculate that it might be cultural.”

Despite the fact that many other AP tests exhibit a marked disparity between male and female participation, no gender gap was as dramatic as in computer science.

New tools for teaching

The researchers behind the summer institute at Carnegie Mellon aim to change that.

“For the past three years, we’ve talked to computer teachers about C++ and gender issues, and we’ve seen some dramatic increases in the number of girls in computer classes at some locations, while other improvement has occurred more systematically,” said Fisher.

Participants learned about the differences in how male and female students address success in learning, according to Jo Sanders, institute cofounder and director of the Center for Gender Equity at the Washington Research Institute.

They spent half the week receiving instruction on how to program in C++ and the rest of the week talking about managing gender issues in the classroom. Subjects covered included classroom conduct, attention-distribution equity, lesson design, and creating welcoming environments for girls.

“One example of good classroom conduct is that you can’t wait for a [female] child to respond. Teachers need to be in charge of who they are calling on in class; otherwise, male students can inadvertently dominate” the discussion, Pevovar said.

He also said that teachers need to go out of their way to support female students—especially in the first three months of a class, when dropout rates are highest. “I found that 100 percent of my female students who stuck with it are happy they did,” he said.

In addition, participants learned about the psychological research on gender inequality and learning, classroom interaction patterns that inadvertently discourage female participation, and how to dispel traditional pedagogical beliefs that can be a deterrent to female learning.

“It helps for girls to be able to make their own direction whenever possible, so it helps to design more open-ended lessons,” Pevovar said.

The exact outcome of the training project is being evaluated to determine the effect that knowledge of gender issues has on girls’ involvement in computer science classes. “We’re still collecting data on what works and what has happened since the teachers have gone back with the skills they gained,” said Sanders.

But educators are enthusiastic about their new tools for teaching. “The skills I learned have certainly helped. This is stuff we don’t think about often, but it lets you be more aware of how girls think and feel. The program has definitely made me more questioning and supportive,” Pevovar said.

A proposal for a three-year extension on research for the same group of educators is awaiting review. “We want to take advantage of this pool of teachers. We really want to extend the program and keep up with the educators for another three years to see where they take this,” Sanders said.

The event this summer in Denver will take place July 7 to 9 and will involve 26 attendees: 13 pairs consisting of one AP computer science teacher who has taken the summer course and an administrator of his or her choice.

“Mentoring programs and other solutions like that help us overcome the association society has of technology as a male thing,” Sanders said. “When I was growing up, girls did not expect to be doctors. They expected to be nurses. But that has changed. Anything that interrupts these type of associations is good.”

Summer Institute for Computer Science Advanced Placement Teachers

American Association of University Women