Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

A Qualitative Investigation of an All-Female Group in a Software Engineering Course Project

Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

A Qualitative Investigation of an All-Female Group in a Software Engineering Course Project

Article excerpt

Introduction

It has been well established that, within North America, participation rates in Information Technology (IT) programs, such as Computer Science (CS) and Software Engineering (SE), are significantly male biased. Recent reports suggest that, at the university level, only 13.9% of students who declare CS as a major in Canadian universities are women (Canadian Association of University Teachers, 2007). This low figure is in spite of the disproportionately larger number of women enrolled in Canadian universities. Canada-wide average full time university student enrollment is composed of 56.7% women and 43.3% men, and part time university enrollment composed of 60.6% women and 39.4% men (Canadian Association of University Teachers, 2007). At Dalhousie University, where our study was performed, the 2006 graduating class in the Bachelors of CS program was composed of 16% women and 84% men. If the graduating class is considered as representative of the CS program in general, Dalhousie, with a full-time undergraduate population of 10605 students, is just slightly above the national average for the proportion of women enrolled in CS.

The reasons for women's under-representation are complex and involve a wide variety of social and cultural factors, such as pervasive stereotyping against women who express technological interest (Cooper & Weaver, 2003). While these factors must certainly be addressed, we posit that efforts will be misplaced if women are encouraged to enter a discipline where they cannot flourish. Thus, our focus is on the current educational environment and on potential interventions that will enable women who chose to engage in SE, CS, or other IT disciplines to successfully complete their program of study. This issue of retaining women who enroll in IT programs is extremely important. Cohoon (2006) documented, between 1994 and 2000, that women constituted 24% of CS undergraduates in the United States, but 32% of these switched to other majors. Whereas the vast majority of researchers (e.g., see Cooper & Weaver, 2003, for a review) are attempting to investigate the reasons why women tend not to major in IT, there has been exceedingly little attention to issues that influence retention. The goal of this paper is to explore one possible mechanism that improves the educational experience for women enrolled in IT programs. It is hoped that by providing a more welcoming and enjoyable environment, women will be less likely to change programs and retention will be improved.

To address the possibility that women and men have distinct academic needs, educators have been turning to single-sex classrooms. In the United States, the federal Department of Education introduced regulations that provided public school districts and charter schools the flexibility to establish single-sex classes and schools (Salomone, 2006). However, a thriving debate exists as to whether single-sex environments are in fact a viable way to meet students' academic needs (see Salomone, 2006, for a review). In general, the evidence suggests that single-sex environments are particularly beneficial for women. Jimenez and Lockheed (1989) examined 3,265 Thai 8th graders' performance on standardized mathematics tests. The results revealed that single-sex schooling was effective for improving girls' scores, which the authors attribute to the impact of peers. In fact, there have been numerous, large-scale investigations on this topic, and they generally reveal improved performance for women and equivalent, or worsened, performance for men (e.g., Carpenter & Hayden, 1987; Young & Fraser, 1990; but see LePore & Warren, 1997).

Single-sex environments may impact other aspects of students' lives in addition to their academic performance. Belcher, Frey, and Yankeelov (2006) randomly assigned sixth grade students to single-sex or mixed-sex classrooms. …

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