jobs. Maybe I should be a CS major.”
[CONTiNUeD FrOM P. 120]
and now nearly half of Mudd’s com-
puter science majors are female.
how applicable are the things you have
done at Mudd to other institutions?
One of the things we learned is that
changing the context of what students
are doing—changing the way it’s presented—is something that absolutely
any institution can do. Our students are
doing just as much programming, and
they are learning essentially the same
concepts. It doesn’t cost more, and it’s
really very easy. The other thing I think
many places can learn from us is how
important it is to streamline the classes.
By “streamline,” do you mean simplify-
ing the progression from one course to
No, I mean dividing students who
have prior experience from those who
haven’t. In an introductory CS course,
there’s typically a broad range of prior
experience. There are people who have
been programming since they were 11,
and there are people who have never
done anything other than use a computer as a tool. And the students who
are passionate about CS are just dying
to talk to someone who really knows the
subject, because most of the teachers at
the high school and middle school levels don’t know that much about it. So
they get into this first class and there’s
a real computer science professor, and
it’s like they can’t stop talking. It’s not
done out of maliciousness—it’s done
out of enthusiasm. But it’s very discouraging to other kids in the class.
So Mudd now has different introduc-
tory courses that vary according to stu-
dents’ prior experience.
There’s zero experience, which is
called CS5 Gold, there’s some experience, which is CS5 Black, and then
there’s CS42, which is for people who
have already had the equivalent of a CS
course at the college level.
“We know from
for women and
is what you
can do with it.”
This seems like a good moment to talk
about “imposter syndrome,” which is a
concept you have linked several times
to women in computer science.
I talk a lot about the imposter syndrome because it’s unbelievable how
common it is among women in technical fields where there aren’t a lot of
other women. The idea is, you’re actually doing fine, but you have the impression that you don’t understand the
material as well as others around you,
or you get this scholarship or internship and think, “I only got it because
I’m female, and they’re going to find
out that I’m really not that good.” It’s
something I discuss at the beginning
of every academic year with our first-year students because I think it’s important to let them know that this is a
normal way to feel, and it doesn’t mean
that you are actually less experienced
or prepared or able.
you have also spoken of the impor-
tance of being able to ask for help.
Asking for help is something I’m really pushing right now because probably the most important thing you
could learn in college is how to learn.
And one of the aspects of learning is
knowing how to ask for help and how
to work with other people. At Mudd,
our students become very good problem solvers and very good learners and
it’s partly because of the kinds of challenges we give them.
how did you discover your own talent
I’ve always wanted to run the world.
At the same time, I was also very shy
and geeky. But I was born liking all the
things boys liked at a time when the
world was very gendered, and I was
lucky that I got a huge amount of en-
couragement from my parents. When
I went to university, people would say,
“Girls aren’t good at math,” and I was
always the best student.
What was your first official leadership
It was at IBM research. My husband,
Nick Pippenger, was working for IBM
research and I was an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. U. of
T. really wanted Nick and IBM didn’t
want to lose him, so they made me an
offer. But I soon realized my manager
didn’t have any interest in me as a researcher. After about three years, I decided the only real solution to this was
to become a manager myself. It took
me a year to get approval to start a new
group for discrete math. But within a
year of my starting the group, my boss
made me manager of five groups, including the original group I was in. And
within about three weeks, my old manager thought I was the best manager
he’d ever had, and we’ve been friends
That is a happy outcome.
It was when I became aware that
I totally adored not just being in a
leadership role but actually building
Before I left IBM, I realized one of
the things I wanted to do was change
the culture of science and engineering
in a way that made it more supportive
of people who are not the norm. And
I’ve pretty much picked the things
I’ve done since then with that goal in
mind. I think of Mudd as a lab for innovation in undergraduate science
and engineering education, where we
can try things and then partner with
other institutions to broaden them
when we succeed. I’d say we are now
in a situation where we have fixed the
gender issue—our incoming class is
47% female, and our faculty is more
than 40% female. We have got a long
way to go with racial diversity, but we
are working really hard on that.
Leah hoffmann is a technology writer based in
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