Three times as many high school girls said they wanted to take a computer science class when shown a less “geeky”  classroom.

The study of 270 students reveals a practical way for teachers to help narrow the gender gap in computer science by helping girls feel that they belong.

“Our findings show that classroom design matters—it can transmit stereotypes to high school students about who belongs and who doesn’t in computer science,” says lead author Allison Master, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

“This is the earliest age we’ve looked at to study stereotypes about computer science,” Master says. “It’s a key age group for recruitment into this field, because girls in their later adolescence are starting to focus on their career options and aspirations.”


Girls’ reluctance to enroll in introductory computer science courses is a possible contributor to the gender disparity in the computer science and technology industries.

“Identity and a sense of belonging are important for adolescents,” says coauthor Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS. “Our approach reveals a new way to draw girls into pipeline courses. It is intriguing that the learning environment plays such a significant role in engaging high school girls in computer science.”

Pick a classroom

In the study, high school boys and girls (aged 14 to 18 years) completed questions about:

  • Their interest in enrolling in a computer science class
  • Their sense of belonging in a computer science class
  • How much they thought they personally “fit” the computer science stereotype

Then, the researchers showed the students photos of two different computer science classrooms decorated with objects that represented either the “geeky” computer science stereotype, including computer parts and Star Trek posters, or a non-stereotypical classroom containing items such as art and nature pictures.

Students had to say which classroom they preferred, and then answered questions about their interest in enrolling in a computer science course and their thoughts and feelings about computer science and stereotypes.

Girls (68 percent) were more likely than boys (48 percent) to prefer the non-stereotypical classroom. And girls were almost three times more likely to say they would be interested in enrolling in a computer science course if the classroom looked like the non-stereotypical one.

Boys didn’t prefer one classroom’s physical environment over the other, and how the classroom looked didn’t change boys’ level of interest in computer science.

Will I fit in?

“Stereotypes make girls feel like they don’t fit with computer science,” Master says. “That’s a barrier that isn’t there for boys. Girls have to worry about an extra level of belonging that boys don’t have to grapple with.”

Previously the research team reported that inaccurate negative cultural stereotypes about computer science deterred college-age women from the field and that altering stereotypes can increase girls’ interest.

The researchers say that changing computer science stereotypes to make more students feel welcome in high school classrooms would help recruit more girls to the field, which has one of the lowest percentages of women among STEM fields.

“Our new study suggests that if schools and teachers feel they can’t recruit girls into their computer science classes,” Master says, “they should make sure that the classrooms avoid stereotypes and communicate to students that everyone is welcome and belongs.”

Sapna Cheryan, associate professor of psychology, is coauthor of the study in the Journal of Educational Psychology. The National Science Foundation supported the work.

This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Molly McElroy-University of Washington
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