Does Your Computer Lab Scare Away the Girls?

The Internet is as the same time one of the great distractions and great spontaneously learning environments in history. As I looked at my twitter stream I saw a link to the live stream from TEDxSeattle and decided to take a look. The session I stumbled on was by Sapna Cheryan who studies stereotypes. Of interest to me is that she has been studying how stereotypes may be keeping women away from computer science.  She asks the question “Might this be because the powerful image of the male “computer geek” makes women feel like they do not belong in the field?” Now she is not the first one to ask this question of course. Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher asked this question in their research which led to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing.  But I found the research experiments that Sapna Cheryan related to be particularly interesting and relevant.

Two questions that I hear regularly are “how should I set up my computer lab” and “can you get me some computer posters for my classroom?” This tells me that people give a lot of thought to there computer labs. And well they should. The question of physical arrangement is usually focused on how best to have things to teach and for good classroom management. The second question though is about making the room an attractive learning space. That is where the relevance of Sapna’s research comes to my mind.

They have created room that were decorated in stereotypical “geek” spaces with science fiction posters and books, soda can statues, etc. and then the same rooms with les stereotypical decorations. Art or general science posters, no soda can piles, etc. Then they asked people which room they thought they would do better in as a student. Also they asked people how interested they were in computer science. Women were more interested in computer science and more optimistic about how well they would do in the non-geek room. Man, generally but not always, favored the geek room. Other research shows that students who expect to do better in an environment actually tend to do better in that environment by the way. So this is interesting on several levels.

We want our learning spaces to be attractive and to promote learning. This research suggests that if we want to attract more people who are not currently being attracted to computer science that we want to avoid too much “geeking out” of our computer rooms and lab spaces. We need to make them welcoming rather than intimidating. For some of us, geeks like me in particular, that may mean getting some decorating help. Maybe that will open some doors of communication as well.

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Comments (3)

  1. Stuart says:

    Bears thinking about, as a computer teacher I often angst over the lack of female students, as well known they keep the male students on their toes as they tend to do better in class. I may give this some thought in my room decor.

    Think over this though, I think even the geeks would choose computing if the room had been made more attractive, as they would put up with most things to be in front of a computer screen 🙂

  2. Carol Foster says:

    I remember when I was still working as a Computer Lab assistant back in college and most of the Lab users were girls doing research in the internet. It simply shows that our Lab is Girl Friendly

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I am in charge of spending some university money on refurbishing our computer science labs. I have taken the approach of consulting our current students about what they want, but given we have only 9% female students maybe this will make it all too boyish! An excuse to exercise my own (female) taste in decor, perhaps?

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