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<< Back to January 2004 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the January 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 1, pp. 2, 5.]

Expanding the Pipeline

Waterloo Offers CS Seminar for High School Girls

By Sandy Graham


The declining enrolment of female students in high school and post-secondary computer science programs is well documented. Many papers have been written and many programs have been implemented to address this alarming trend [1]. If we are able to increase the numbers of female students studying computer science at the high school level, this may increase the numbers of female undergraduate computer science students. In turn, an increase in female undergraduate students may reach a critical mass that will help retain a higher percentage of female graduate students.

The Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC) at the University of Waterloo has developed a weeklong seminar for girls in grades nine and ten. The seminar is designed to address two major factors that deter female students from studying computer science. The first is that girls are turned off by the stereotypical image of a computer scientist. The second is that female students tend to have less experience working with computers on their own, which makes them feel less confident in the classroom than their male peers. The first seminar was held in May 2002, and it was so successful that two seminars were held in 2003: one in May and one in July. The CEMC has acquired funding to hold two seminars each year for at least the next four years.


The Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo has been involved in high school mathematics and computer science education for several decades. One of the most enduring connections with high school teachers and students has been the annual mathematics contests, such as the Pascal, Cayley, Fermat, and Euclid. Over the past 39 years, the top performers in Canada in these contests have been invited to a weeklong math seminar, which includes problem-solving sessions and lectures designed to challenge these very bright mathematical minds. In 1996, the CEMC introduced the Canadian Computing Competition (CCC), an algorithm programming contest. The CCC was designed to challenge high school students and help identify the Canadian team for the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). The twenty top performers in the CCC have been invited for the Stage II competition at the University of Waterloo. Over the past four years, there have been no female competitors at Stage II.

The CEMC wanted to create a seminar in computer science modeled after the long-running mathematics seminar. However, we recognized that trying to get a group of participants that was reasonably balanced with respect to gender was not going to be possible if we used the results from our competition as the basis for invitations. After some debate, it was suggested that we tackle the problem of declining female interest in computer science directly. The problems of losing female students should be addressed at as early an age as possible, even before high school. However, since we were expecting our participants to fly on their own and stay by themselves on campus for a week, the youngest students we thought we could accommodate would come from grades nine and ten. So, the J.W. Graham Seminar was born, which became the Imperial Oil Seminar in Computer Science for Young Women [2] the following year.

Finding the Participants

We sent invitations to high school mathematics departments across Canada asking high school teachers to encourage bright female mathematics students to apply to attend the seminar. The intent was that we would take these students, who probably had little or no experience in computer science, and spark their interest in computer science. Each student provided a transcript, a teacher’s recommendation, and a one-page hand-written or typed statement about why she would make a good participant in the seminar. The cost to the student would be $100; the rest of the costs—airfare, accommodation, and meals—would be covered.

We received more than 900 applications for 40 positions for the first seminar. Two faculty members had a difficult task choosing the final set of participants. They used a minimum mark average to eliminate some of the applicants, but it was difficult to distinguish among the remaining students. One of the goals was to have a relatively even geographic representation. In the end, we had at least two students from every province and territory except Nunavut (where we did not receive any applications). In some ways the final participant list was generated randomly, since there were so many talented young women from which to choose. The following year we more than doubled participation by offering two seminars to 48 girls each.

The Seminar Programme

The program for the girls was a combination of lectures, hands-on activities, and labs. The core sessions for the week were designed to introduce programming and digital hardware concepts. On the first day, participants learned basic programming concepts using a scripting language called Tcl/Tk, and they learned simple digital hardware concepts using breadboards and simple electronic components. After that, a lab session was scheduled each day where the girls could choose to continue to learn more about programming or more about digital hardware. The material for these sessions was presented in a modular format that would allow the girls to move back and forth between the sessions from one day to the next if they wished. Most girls chose to stay with either programming or digital hardware for the entire week. In each of the three seminars, between 25 percent and 30 percent of the girls chose the digital hardware sessions.

The programming modules introduced basic concepts such as variables, selection structures, and repetition structures. These modules had the students add features to a simple drawing program written in Tcl/Tk. Using a language such as Tcl/Tk allowed the participants to create a graphical program with real functionality. We also chose this language because it is freely available on multiple platforms. Ideally, the girls could continue to work with the language when they returned home.

The digital hardware sessions had the students work on a series of experiments. The first session introduced concepts such as binary numbers and simple circuits. By the last experiment, the girls were creating more complex circuits using multiple logic gates, and they were introduced to simple circuit design. Ideally these core sessions will provide a realistic foundation in computer science and computer engineering for the girls. Unfortunately, since some provinces do not provide computer science courses in high school, the follow-up opportunities may be limited. This concern is even greater because taking computer science courses in high school is more of a determining factor for girls who choose to major in computer science than for boys [3].

The main criterion for selecting lecture topics and hands-on sessions was to find a dynamic speaker who was able to relate to a high school audience. The lecture topics ranged from the History of Computer Science to Finite State Machines (FSM). The girls learned about Bioinformatics, Information Retrieval (IR), Artificial Intelligence and Software Engineering. The hands-on and lab sessions ranged from using animation software to disassembling and reassembling a personal computer.

These sessions were intended to inform the students about different aspects of the area of computer science; we wanted to show them that the study of computer science was more than just sitting at a computer, programming all day and night. We did not want to underestimate the potential of these girls, keeping in mind their high school mathematical experience. We challenged them with topics that are normally taught after first-year university, such as finite state machines and information retrieval. Overall, the sessions were very well received.

Beyond the actual programme offered to the girls, there were several reasons why the seminar was so successful. The girls encountered positive role models, both male and female, throughout the week. In addition to the presenters and organizers who were faculty members and graduate students, we had three "houseparents" who chaperoned the participants while they stayed on campus. The "houseparents" were female undergraduate students in computer science, and they stayed with the girls in residence and participated in many of the social activities throughout the week. Many of the participants commented that they enjoyed the chance to visit a university campus. As well, the seminar was a unique opportunity to interact with peers from across Canada. We also planned several social activities, such as rock-climbing and a Shakespearean play, which provided very positive associations with the entire seminar. We knew we had presented a successful seminar when we saw the tears at the end of the week as the girls said goodbye to each other.


There is obviously a need for programs that will encourage female students to study computer science; since we have received more than 1,700 applications in the past two years for our seminar, there are obviously many high school girls who are willing to learn more about this area of study. Ideally, we would like to serve more of them.

Anyone wanting to re-create the seminar in some form should find local experts who can present topics that will help debunk the stereotypical image of computer science. We are happy to share the material we created for the core sessions in programming and digital hardware with anyone who is interested. If the results of the Imperial Oil Seminar in Computer Science for Young Women are an indication, any efforts to reach female students in high school or elementary school would be equally rewarding for the participants and for the presenters and organizers.

[1] inroads (SIGCSE Bulletin) Special Issue: Women and Computing (June 2002), ACM Press.
[3] Margolis, Jane, and Fisher, Allan. Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (2002), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sandy Graham (slgraham [at] is the Computer Science High School Liaison at the University of Waterloo.

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