By Rachael Warecki ’08
The history of computer science (CS) is full of women, including Ada Lovelace, who created the first algorithm, Deborah Washington Brown, who conducted speech recognition research for AT&T Bell Labs, and Katherine Johnson, whose calculations were crucial to the success of NASA’s crewed space flights. Despite these important contributions, however, women continue to be underrepresented in computer science majors and in CS careers: A 2018 US Department of Labor report highlighted the fact that only 24 percent of employees in computer occupations, and only 15 percent of engineers, are women.
Scripps is working to change this imbalance. In response to increased demand from students interested in programming, website development, and artificial intelligence, the College launched a computer science minor in fall 2022.
The minor was co-created and developed by Doug Goodwin, Fletcher Jones Scholar in Computation and visiting assistant professor in media studies; Christopher Towse, Herron Family Chair in Mathematics and professor of mathematics; and Christina Edholm, assistant professor of mathematics. Goodwin says that one of the ideas behind the creation of his Fletcher Jones Scholar position was to further integrate rapidly developing STEM topics into the College’s liberal arts education: “We wanted to offer a CS minor that would reflect Scripps’ interdisciplinary curriculum and commitment to intellectual diversity.”
Goodwin worked with Towse and Edholm to integrate the fields of study and determine how certain mathematical threads express themselves in computer science. “The math that has come into computer science isn’t observed as closely as it might be,” Goodwin explains. “I think it’s great that we have two mathematicians involved in the CS minor at Scripps. Together we can dig into mathematical foundations of CS education that may be sidelined in other programs.”
These mathematical aspects of the CS minor have attracted several students to Scripps’ new courses. “Math is my main interest, and in terms of its applications, I feel that having a computer science lens could be very valuable,” explains Fiona Irving-Beck ’25.
JP Walker ’25 has previously taken CS courses at Harvey Mudd College and spent the summer working as a software engineer, where they participated in full stack, end-to-end website development. “I’m excited that Scripps is guaranteeing some amount of involvement in CS for students, and I’m loving the overlap with the math faculty,” they say. “I’m excited to keep going.”
Beyond the close integration of mathematics, Goodwin hopes that the interdisciplinary approach to the minor will teach students how to fully understand the CS tools they’re using, rather than accepting existing, consumer-ingrained concepts such as the planned obsolescence of devices. Ideally, he explains, students will better understand how to approach CS through the concept of affordances, or designs that make a tool’s purpose immediately apparent. By increasing the popularity of affordances in a more abstract discipline such as computer science, users will better understand what tools they’re using and how to make those tools work best for them—rather than, for example, purchasing a new smartphone every few years because their current device feels inaccessible and incomprehensible.
“Computers didn’t have to be this way, but they were designed as such for a variety of reasons, such as simplicity and economics,” Goodwin says. “But they could be different. We need to open them up and understand what’s going on inside of them. It may seem like a tall order, but it’s something we can do in the minor: teaching students enough about programming so that they don’t use push-button solutions, so that they understand what it is that they’re trying to do, practically and conceptually.”
When designing the minor’s course curricula, Goodwin, Towse, and Edholm also wanted students to explore the ethical issues inherent in computer science—a goal similar to that of the data science minor the College launched in 2020. From questions surrounding ChatGPT’s methods to recent legislation of platforms’ data collection, CS is rife with concerns about artistic copyright, privacy, and algorithms that promote dangerous misinformation.
“We confront these issues every day, and it’s not always because there are bad actors involved, but because it’s easy to ignore how your own biases find their way into your own work,” Goodwin explains. “It requires a lot of eyes from many different kinds of people to identify these things and root them out. I think Scripps students have a really great opportunity to do that, and by understanding computer science, Scripps alums can and should make change.”
There’s one bias that Goodwin believes Scripps is especially well-positioned to challenge: the lack of gender diversity in the computer science field. “We are already sending a powerful message simply by offering a computer science minor,” he says. “We can amplify that message by leveraging Scripps’ commitment to interdisciplinary education and be heard around the world.”