How to get girls psyched about computer science

October 5, 2012, 6:25 PM UTC

Maria Klawe

FORTUNE — One of the recurring topics at this year’s Most Powerful Women Summit revolved around how to get more young women interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. The most promising case study on how to do it came from Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College.

When Klawe started at Harvey Mudd in 2005, 10% of graduates with computer science degrees were women. Last year that figure jumped to about 40%, a rate nearly four times the national average.

How did she and her faculty do it? They first looked at why women don’t enter the field to begin with: “No. 1, they think they won’t like it, No. 2 they think they won’t be good at it, and No. 3 they think the people who major in computer science are geeks who have no life, and they don’t want to be seen as that,” Klawe said.

The faculty attempted to alter those perceptions by changing the introductory course from straight programming to a class called computational approaches to solving problems in science and engineering. “This whole idea that instead of learning to program to learn to program, learn to program in order to solve fun problems — it frames it totally differently,” she said, “because we know women are interested in computers for what you can do with them.”

Klawe says that the computer science department makes the first course so much fun that female students take the second course, and by the time they’re taking the third course, they have a great summer job lined up and the idea of being a computer science major doesn’t sound that radical. If they want it, these women could have five job offers by the time they’re starting their senior year, Klawe said.

The college also offers to pay for all incoming female first-year students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Harvey Mudd is bringing 58 of its 750 students to this year’s conference, which started on Wednesday in Baltimore.

Klawe stressed to the audience that a big hurdle is changing the way computer science is perceived. She discouraged parents from getting their daughters into the field before college because,“the whole culture is swaying young women to say this is not for me, I won’t be good at it.”

From a media perspective, she brought up the example of Chandler on the sitcom Friends. Chandler was in data processing but no one ever knew it, she noted. “If I could wave my magic wand and have one thing happen,” she said, “I’d have a TV series that shows attractive young women who have lives who are actually working as computer scientists.”

Her top tips for the audience to get women into the industry were to encourage young women to take one computer science class their first year of college, and to donate money to computer science departments to encourage them to make their program less intimidating and more fun. “And that TV series,” she said. “I really want it.”

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