Careers and Ed: Nurturing the drive - Page 2

Two computer science programs at Mills College aim to build second-career confidence
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Spertus always tells them computer scientists with a narrow focus are "a dime a dozen." But people like them, who know CS along with another field, are unique.

RIGHTING THE BALANCE

Erica Rios has been an activist since she was a teenager but became frustrated that activists were still using the same methods of organizing Martin Luther King Jr. employed back in the '60s. She had a political science degree and a minor in Chicano studies from UC Davis. As a labor activist for small community nonprofits, she had to teach herself to use computers because nobody else knew how. She saw how technology was changing her native San Jose. She wanted to learn "how tech could be used to engage people in the issues that impact them but they don't necessarily have a direct voice on."

Though Mills is a women's undergrad college, it accepts male graduate students. Men typically make up roughly a third of the participants in the ICS program, but the majority-female environment creates a unique classroom culture. The different gender balance was helpful to Rios because she had a nine-month-old child when she started the program. She felt more comfortable bringing her daughter to her Java class than she would have in a male-dominated classroom — and less apt to fall behind on coursework.

The few men enrolled during Rios's time brought a balance to the learning environment, she believes, while showing her that she need not feel uncomfortable as a woman in the computer science field. "There were two other men in class with me and about seven going through the whole program," says Barton Friedland, one of the men who just completed the ICS program. For him, it felt very different to study "with a preponderance of women, but that's something you can learn from."

Friedland took some classes at Stanford before going to Mills. "There seemed to be this attitude where if you asked questions in class, people looked at you funny." If students admitted they didn't know something, they would lose status, and they were supposed to figure out things on your own. Despite Stanford's reputation as one of the top schools in the country, Friedland found Mills's curriculum more thorough.

The smaller class sizes at Mills were also helpful, Rios says. At UC Davis the average class size is 300 in lower-level courses and 75 to 100 in upper-level classes; a class size of 12 to 15 students is more conducive to learning, she found.

It "felt like everyone belonged there and [was] equally capable of learning. I didn't always feel that in larger classes."

The Mills professors "don't throw too much jargon at you, making you feel like you're not smart enough," Rios adds. Instead, the professors step back to observe how students approach problems, then help them learn to problem solve from a more hard-science perspective. Rios now works as an Internet project manager at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, using her activism background to "explore ways in which we can use technology to advance women."

"I felt comfortable speaking in class and asking questions, where in a typical classroom I would not," says former ICS student Lisa Cowan, who has a BA in anthropology and is now pursuing a computer science PhD at UC San Diego. "The professors taught class in a highly interactive way, asking questions and encouraging discussion, helping us solve problems together, making sure all students thoroughly understood the material being covered."

PAVING THE WAY

The ICS program at Mills isn't the first reentry program of its kind in the Bay Area. UC Berkeley opened a program in 1983 as a pathway to graduate study in computer science for women and minority students who were underrepresented in Berkeley's crowded and competitive program.

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