Computer science classes at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are going to look a little different this fall than they have in the past. Nearly half–46 percent–of the 190 incoming freshman computer science students in UIUC’s College of Engineering are women.

That’s well above the 18 percent of women majoring in CS nationwide, and huge leap for UIUC over recent years: Last year 24 percent of the incoming CS class were women. In 2012 it was only 6 percent. Leonard Pitt, associate head of the computer science department at UIUC, said applications from high-caliber female students increased significantly this year, allowing them to admit a freshman class that was more gender inclusive.

Women in Computer Science at UIUC
Women in Computer Science at UIUC

“There were so many applications that the pool of extremely talented women was much deeper, it didn’t max out,” said Leonard Pitt, associate head of the computer science department at UIUC. He said the average ACT score among incoming freshman was in the 99th percentile.

The increase also comes at a time when tech companies, most notably Facebook, blame the pipeline for a lack of high quality diverse talent. Given UIUC’s computer science programs are ranked among the best in the world, retaining and continuing to recruit high numbers of women computer scientists could change that narrative.

Interest in computer science, which was once seen as a niche field, is expanding as more young people interact with smartphones, essentially mini computers, everyday, he said.  “Students see how important and pervasive computing is and how it could change their lives,” he said. “Being aware that they could create things…has made it much more real, rather than an abstract field.”

He noted that the 46 percent figure is just for UIUC’s flagship computer science degree within the College of Engineering. UIUC also offers a statistics and computer science degree, a math and computer science degree, as well as four CS+X programs, which combine computer science with additional disciplines including astronomy, linguistics, anthropology and chemistry.

With these added to the total, the percentage of women majoring in some sort of computer science falls to 37 percent. This is still higher than other local schools: only 17 percent of Illinois Institute of Technology’s incoming freshman computer science students are women, and at University of Chicago 25 percent of computer science majors are women. 

Students see how important and pervasive computing is and how it could change their lives

He noted that they haven’t seen the same sort of growth among racial and ethnic minorities, which remains low, and just 25 percent of the 1,500 incoming freshman in the College of Engineering overall are women (though an increase from 19 percent last year).

But Pitt pointed out the new, interdisciplinary programs, which only launched in 2013, are already attracting more diverse students than the main computer science degree has in the past.

He added that student-organizations, such as Women in Computer Science (WCS), have made inroads with the K-12 pipeline and supporting women in computer science once they get on campus. The WCS does school visits and overnight retreats for local high school girls where they teach computer science concepts, create projects and offer career advice. There’s also a day-long spring event for high school students where UIUC students can apply to teach hour-long courses of their choosing. WCS also hosts an open house for women admitted to computer science.

Once students are on campus WCS offers opportunities to work on tech projects to boost students’ portfolios, and academic resources to learn new skills. They also have “Lean In Circles,” a mentorship program that help women with any difficulties or struggles they might be facing in class or work.

Corly Leung
Corly Leung

Corly Leung, president of UIUC’s WCS, and senior computer science major, said she was “definitely surprised” to learn of the high percentage of women in Illinois’ computer science programs this fall, but she said she believes it is due to increased interest in the subject among women. “Girls in general were more interested in computer science than in the past, since there were a larger number of applicants,” she said.

“The dynamics of the fall will be interesting given classes will be closer to equal,” she said. Leung, who started at UIUC in 2013 when only 17 percent of incoming computer science students were women, admitted, “I don’t actually know what that will be like.”

However, she’s hopeful that more equality in the classrooms will translate to increased collaboration, and, in the future, more inclusive workplaces. Having diversity “changes the dynamic of how you work together,” she said. “I think being able to respect differences and see that even if [people] are different, doesn’t mean you can’t work together.”

That community at UIUC is what drew Leung, who’s originally from California. She recalls impromptu hackathons that have become yearly events and the energy around the spring event where UIUC students teach classes. “I really enjoyed the collaborative feeling. Everyone was working together,” she said.

Leung wants to use her degree in computer science to work with nonprofits, which often have few tech resources, she pointed out. “I think it’s amazing that the field I’m in can be applied to so many different causes,” she said. “The work I do can be deployed to millions of people, even billions of people.”