When Christine Alvarado was studying computer science at Dartmouth College in the mid 1990s, she was, unsurprisingly, one of the very few women in the major. But being a minority in a male-dominated department didn’t bother her much.
“I was always at the top of my class, so I didn’t really notice that there were no women around,” she says. “I’d overhear little comments here and there, but I didn’t really think much about it.”
That wasn’t the case when Christine moved on to MIT, however. Here, the stark reality of the gender gap became more obvious to her, and the computer science curriculum at MIT was more challenging, as well. That’s when Christine became more involved in the women in tech community.
“Groups for women in computer science tend to be really supportive, and I needed that extra support,” she says. “I started understanding that the environment for female computer scientists was subtly hostile. I remember having a male officemate, and if I picked up the phone, people would think I was his secretary.”
Christine went on to teach computer science classes at Harvey Mudd College, and her interest in bringing more women into tech followed her. So when Harvey Mudd College started re-thinking its curriculum for an introductory computer science class, Christine jumped at the opportunity to get involved and make the department more welcoming and inclusive for women.
Christine notes that the intro CS classes at Harvey Mudd, while very informative and holistic, weren’t giving students a great idea of what computer science meant unless they had already been exposed to it.
“We wanted to create a broad introduction to computer science, with different programming paradigms, hardware development, CS theory, and how and why we measure and care about efficiency,” Christine says. “At the same time, we tried to work in ties with other scientific disciplines, like biology, math, game theory and artificial intelligence.”
Christine and her colleagues at Harvey Mudd also divided the class in half —one half designed for students with no computer science experience whatsoever and the other half for those who had some experience coming in. Christine explains that students with some CS experience approach the class in a completely different way.
“We wanted to provide a more uniform introduction to the other students so they felt more comfortable having no experience,” she says.
Most recently, Christine has taken her knowledge of revamping the curriculum at Harvey Mudd to UCSD, where she is an associate teaching professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering. At this school, Christine has helped usher in a new initiative known as the Early Research Scholars Program, which takes first and second year students — primarily women and minorities — and puts them in research apprentices with existing projects in the Computer Science department. These students do research during the academic year and beyond, gaining valuable experience into the importance of research and building up their resumes for future positions.
“The goal of the project is to try and bridge the early undergraduate culture with the graduate school culture. We’re hoping to fix the problem of students drifting away, maybe because the subject matter gets really hard,” says Christine. “People who have lower confidence start to think, ‘Maybe I’m just not good enough.’ They need to feel like they belong to some kind of culture.”
Christine also contributes to UCSD’s Summer Bridge program, an intensive month-long program that invites incoming students to the campus early to give them a headstart on computer science classes.
“We want to instill a sense of community and confidence in these students, who tend to get tossed around at a big school like UCSD,” says Christine.
To the young students, especially women, entering the field of computer science, Christine has advice to push through that sense of being tossed around:
“Don’t quit,” she says. “Don’t give up. You’ll feel like you want to give up or that you’re not good enough or that you don’t belong, but know that those feelings are just you holding yourself back. It’s important to push through until you feel better.”