This entry is part 10 of 29 in the series Fall - 2016


by Katie Courage

Chris Wilcox left a comfortable career in the tech industry to go back to school. Why? To get a Ph.D. – “purely because I wanted to get involved in teaching,” he explained.

Wilcox is now a special assistant professor in the CSU Department of Computer Science. But year after year, he noticed something peculiar when he looked out over his classroom: He would see about 10 women. Out of a class of 100.

So, along with Assistant Director for Advising and Mentoring Debbie Bartlett, Professor Adele Howe, Professor Indrakshi Ray, and others, Wilcox has been on a mission to change that ratio – and make computer science at CSU welcoming to all.

One powerful way to do that is to change the way fundamental courses are taught. Traditionally, these classes were lecture-, test-, and math-heavy, where students were expected to make it or break it on individual effort alone. Such a model fostered competition and isolation, further discouraging students who might already feel like they don’t belong, Wilcox said.

He has flipped some of his classes around. So instead of just listening to him lecture, students are expected to study the day’s lesson beforehand then come to class ready to engage with Wilcox and with each other. Programming projects are no longer done alone but in pairs, creating dialogue and helping all students contribute.

But Wilcox is not soft on rigor. In fact, his in-class clicker quizzes are built to be so challenging that students have to work together to solve them: “They’re loud and boisterous, and they scream and yell – and they teach each other.”

And in that dynamic environment, confidence gaps begin to evaporate, he said. All of the students “start to realize, ‘hey, maybe not everybody knows everything.’” And that can be the key to retaining students who might not otherwise see that others are grappling with the same challenges.

The pedagogic refresh is one way to diversify the department’s student population. Wilcox and others have also helped launch new scholarships, clubs, teaching programs, and outreach, such as Girls Who Code and Summer Programming Camp.

In a short time, Wilcox has seen tremendous success. From the eternal 10 percent, the proportion of female students in his course grew to 19 percent for the Spring 2016 semester.

“That’s a big deal,” he said. He knows there is still a way to go. But, as he can see each day in his classes, “something’s happening.”