Interdisciplinary computer science at Mills College

This is a guest post by Ellen Spertus, who is a professor of computer science at Mills College and a senior research scientist at Google. She has been active in geek feminism since 1991, when she released a widely distributed report on women in computer science. Her many publications include a chapter in She’s Such a Geek, and she has contributed to several open source projects, including the software behind the Systers mailing list and App Inventor. She is perhaps best known, however, for being named Sexiest Geek Alive in 2001.

Everyone knows that the computer science pipeline leaks women. Once a young woman decides not to take computer science courses in high school or in college, it is hard for her to reenter the pipeline, and earning a PhD in computer science after a bachelor’s degree in sociology, for example, might seem impossible, even though an interdisciplinary background might make someone a better computer scientist.

In 1984, department head Lenore Blum (who has continued to be a leader in women and computer science) founded the New Horizons certificate program at Mills for women and men with bachelor’s degrees in other fields. (The graduate programs at Mills are coed.) It consists of eight undergraduate computer science courses and prepares students for either careers in industry or for graduate study in computer science. Certificate students have been admitted to computer science PhD programs at MIT, University of Virginia, University of Washington, and other schools.

The more revolutionary program, however, is the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Computer Science (ICS), founded a few years later, which aims to build on students’ past background and not just supplant it with computer science. In addition to more demanding coursework, ICS students need to complete an interdisciplinary thesis that combines computer science with another field, usually their prior one. For example, Erica Rios, who had a background in political activism, developed a technology-enhanced community organizing model to raise consciousness among Latinas over the value of their unpaid household work. Jeri Countryman developed and deployed a computer science curriculum for middle-school girls and went on to work for Techbridge and Iridescent on tech outreach programs for girls. Amy Dewey, whose undergraduate degree was in dance, developed a database to preserve swing dance moves and routines. Whenever a student proposes a thesis topic, I always ask two questions: First, what is the computer science content? Second, what about it couldn’t be done by someone trained only in computer science, like myself? I like to make the point that, rather than being deficient for not having an undergraduate CS background, their diverse experience enables them to accomplish things impossible for a more traditional computer scientist.

Appropriately, the Mills motto is “One destination, many paths”. Students have entered the program through various means and at various stages of life. Constance Conner had partied her way through college, ending up in low-paying dead-end secretarial jobs, where she became the expert on the dedicated word processing machine and early spreadsheets and databases. After a cocktail party conversation with a Mills graduate at age 30, she entered the ICS program part-time. Her first summer internship paid more than twice what she was making at her secretarial job ($15/hour vs. $7/hour). After graduating, she had five industry job interviews and got five offers. She accepted one, which paid well but that she found “uninspiring”. When an ICS alumnus, Allan Miller, remembered an interest she had once expressed in teaching and let her know about a part-time teaching position at College of San Mateo, she jumped at the chance to teach, something she had always wanted to do. In 1995, with the help of another ICS alumna, Dana Bass, she began working full-time at City College of San Francisco, one of the country’s largest community colleges, where she’s taught computer programming to an estimated 400 students/year.

One of Constance’s students, Karina Ivanetich was working in a bike shop after earning a BA in Anthropology and an MA in Sociology from the University of Virginia and pursuing her goal of mountain biking for a few years. She was planning to just learn programming but was so inspired by the material—especially compilers, which Constance frequently mentioned in the introductory programming class—that she entered the ICS program. ICS led to opportunities for her to participate in machine translation research at the University of Pittsburgh and to intern at Google and Wind River, where she implemented an instruction scheduler for their compiler. She is now a Senior Engineer in their compiler team.

Lisa Cowan learned to program as a kid and found it “super fun” but majored in Anthropology at UC Berkeley, not taking any computer science classes but “noodling around” on the pre-web Internet via dial-up. She found work at a start-up and realized she wanted a career in computing, so she entered the ICS program, where she appreciated the small class size and the camaraderie among the students — very different from Berkeley. After Mills, Lisa earned a PhD in computer science at UCSD, applying her anthropology background to studying mobile social media and human-computer interaction.

Alison Huml had planned to major in science at UC Berkeley but got off to a discouraging start. On the first day of her honors chemistry class, she was the only woman in the section. Before she could take a seat, the TA tried to redirect her to the general chemistry class down the hall. Alison stayed in the course but decided to major in English instead, graduating summa cum laude. She worked as a tech writer during the Internet boom but knew that she wouldn’t go far without an understanding of computer science, so she entered the ICS program. She has since co-authored books on the Java programming language and led writing and product management teams at Google, where she is now employed.

Other graduates (and drop-outs) of the program have gone on to work at Apple, Disney, Google, IBM Research, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Splunk, as well as many smaller companies. Marianne Marck is currently Senior VP of Software Engineering for Starbucks. It is tremendously rewarding as a faculty member to help students go from unfulfilling jobs to creative, high-paying ones, even if their starting salary sometimes exceeds mine as a
professor.

My ulterior motive in writing this guest post is to reach Geek Feminism readers and their friends who might be interested in entering the program or applying for our visiting industry faculty position. I can honestly say that feminism is front and center at Mills, a women’s college. Most of the Mills administrators and faculty, including the president, provost, and all of the full-time computer science faculty are women (by happenstance, not design); male faculty are equally committed to women’s advancement. The school is diverse in race, national origin, and sexual orientation, and has a growing awareness of issues faced by transgender and gender non-conforming students and advocacy for their full inclusion. (Editor’s note: Current students at Mills who have questioned administrators about policy have alleged that Mills continues to have an unofficial policy of rejecting women undergraduate applicants whose government-issued identification documents have a male gender marker. Updated to add 5 September 2014: In August 2014, Mills published a written policy making it the first officially trans-inclusive women’s college in the U.S.) Our biggest problems are (1) finding potential students, since they don’t know that a program like ours exists and (2) keeping them after they get great job offers before finishing the program.

2 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary computer science at Mills College

  1. Ellen Spertus

    The search for a visiting faculty position is still open, but the website says that applications are no longer being accepted. This is a mistake that should soon be fixed.

  2. Sonya Barry

    Hey, I know a lot of those people! Another ICS grad here. Thanks to a LinkedIn email passed on by Ellen in 2005 I was hired as an intern at Sun Microsystems while I was in the ICS program, was hired as an engineer at Sun the week after I graduated, was offered a job at Oracle (only 4 of about 50 people in my group got offers) three years ago when they acquired Sun, and have moved up from there. I would not have the career in tech I have today without this program and degree.

    Sonya Barry
    Director of Community Infrastructure
    Community Manager Java.net and Oracle Technology Network

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