How to Raise a Good Human in a Digital World

Sierra Filucci Executive Editor, Parenting Content | Mom of two 

How to Raise a Good Human in a Digital World

As parents, we have many hopes for our kids. We want them to grow up to live happy, successful lives. We hope they’ll find love, maybe have kids of their own, and pursue their dreams. But at the bottom of all these wishes is the hope that our kid turns into a decent human being — someone who is kind, respectful, and honest.

How do you bolster these strengths as well as teach key skills such as teamwork, communication, and perseverance? For the most part, kids will learn these things by following your example and through experience gained at school and in their communities. But media is another entry point. Since movies, TV shows, books, video games, and social media are such a huge part of kids’ lives, it makes sense that kids can learn important lessons about character through media.

Here are some specific things you can do or say to reinforce character:

Watch sports.
Not only can watching sports with kids be a really fun way to bond over a favorite team or player, it can be a perfect opportunity to point out character strengths from teamwork to perseverance. After cheering over a big touchdown or basket, point out how important the linebackers or passers were to the score: Even though they don’t get all the attention, the team wouldn’t be successful without the admirable work of supporting players.

Share social media.
From Facebook and Instagram to YouTube, social media is ripe with character lessons. If you notice a post, photo, or video of something especially touching or beautiful, share it with your kid and comment on how much courage it took for the poster to share their story or creative expression. Discuss the risks involved with putting yourself out there and how important it is to take (reasonable) risks to be true to yourself, even though you might face criticism.

Expand your horizons.
Watching documentaries or movies about people who live very different lives can trigger empathy,compassion, and humility. During a family movie night, choose something out of the ordinary — a story about someone of a different race or religion, or about a community that’s less fortunate than yours, or a subculture with different values or beliefs than yours — and encourage discussion afterward.

Play video games together.
Gaming as a family offers the chance to practice teamwork, problem-solving, communication, and perseverance, while also having fun. Choose multiplayer games where gamers are required to work together to win. Model positive, respectful communication during the game (try “I need help over here” instead of “you idiot!”). If kids are trying over and over again to achieve a game goal, you can recognize their effort as well as their success.

Take a time-out.
Most households are abuzz as various mobile devices alert us to text messages or Instagram posts. But we can help teach our kids self-control by resisting the urge to respond immediately. Next time you hear a text message alert (and you know it’s nothing urgent), say out loud, “I don’t need to check that right now.” This lesson can work on social media, too. If you’re a Twitter or Facebook user and you see something that makes you mad, talk through with your kid why you don’t want to respond right away (“I might say something I regret because I’m upset” or “I’d rather tell my friend that this bothers me privately instead of publicly on Twitter”).

How to Cut Children’s Screen Time? Say No to Yourself First.

The New York Times

Photo

CreditPaul Rogers

Parents are often at fault, directly or indirectly, when children and teenagers become hooked on electronic media, playing video games or sending texts many hours a day instead of interacting with the real world and the people in it. And as discussed in last week’s column, digital overload can impair a child’s social, emotional and intellectual growth.

This sad conclusion of many experts in child development has prompted them to suggest ways parents can prevent or rectify the problem before undue damage occurs.

“There’s nothing about this that can’t be fixed,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated psychologist. “And the sooner, the better.”

As Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist, put it in The Huffington Post, today’s parents are unprepared “to deal with the intense pull and highly addictive nature of what the online world has to offer. As parents, we have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world, without being swallowed whole by it.”

Two experts at the Harvard School of Public Health, Steven Gortmaker and Kaley Skapinsky, offer a free guide, “Outsmarting the Smart Screens: A Parent’s Guide to the Tools That Are Here to Help,” as well as healthy activities to pursue to counter the weight gain that can accompany excessive screen time. Young children should not have their own cellphones or televisions in their bedrooms, they say, adding that even with teenagers it is not too late to set reasonable limits on screen time.

Dr. Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” cited two common parental behaviors that can strongly influence a child’s tendency to abuse electronic media. Some parents are perpetually tuned into their own devices, responding to every ping of their cellphones and tablets, receiving and sending messages at times that would enrage Miss Manners. Other parents fail to establish and enforce appropriate rules for media engagement by their children.

Young children learn by example, often copying the behavior of adults. I often see youngsters in strollers or on foot with a parent or caretaker who is chatting or texting on a cellphone instead of conversing with the children in their charge. Dr. Steiner-Adair said parents should think twice before using a mobile device when with their children. She suggests parents check email before the children get up, while they are in school, or after they go to bed.

One girl among the 1,000 children she interviewed in preparing her book said, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, any time, even on the ski lift.” A 4-year-old called her father’s smartphone a “stupid phone.”

Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who with two colleagues observed 55 groups of parents and children at fast-food restaurants, noted that 40 of the adults immediately took out mobile devices and used them throughout most of the meal. Often more attention was paid to the devices than to the children.

The researchers also found that when parents were absorbed in their own devices, the children were more likely to act out, apparently in an attempt to get their parents’ attention.

Dr. Steiner-Adair is especially concerned about parental failure to pay full attention to their children “at critical times of the day, like when taking children to and from school. This should be a cell-free zone for everyone — no Bluetooth for parents or devices for the kids. The pickup from school is a very important transitional time for kids, a time for them to download their day. Parents shouldn’t be saying, ‘Wait a minute, I have to finish this call.’  ”

Likewise, she said, when parents come home from work, “they should walk in the door unplugged and use the first hour they’re home as time to reconnect with the family. Kids hate the phrase ‘just checking’ that parents frequently use to justify a very rude, infuriating behavior.”

Nor should parents or children be using devices when the family dines out, the psychologist said. “The art of dining and the connection between delicious food and nourishing conversation is being lost, not just in restaurants but at home as well,” she said.

Dr. Steiner-Adair attributes a recent 20 percent increase in accidental injuries seen in pediatric emergency rooms to caretakers’ failure to pay full attention to those they are supposed to be watching, like infants and toddlers in the bathtub or children on the jungle gym. “Your reaction time and attention is not the same when you’re texting or talking on a cellphone,” she said.

Ms. Stiffelman, author of “Parenting With Presence,” realizes that attempts to change digital behavior can meet with resistance. But, she said, it is important to be fearless and decisive, and to avoid negotiations.

“Acknowledge your kid’s upset without delivering long lectures about why they can’t have what they want,” she said. “Children grow into resilient adults by living through disappointment. It’s O.K. for your kids to be mad, bored or anxious about missing out on what their friends are up to online.”

She and other experts urge parents to establish device-free times of day, like the first hour after school and the hour before bed. Cellphones and tablets should not be allowed at the dinner table.

Ms. Stiffelman suggests parents “make time for real-life activities with your kids that let them know that they’re worth your time and undivided attention. Do things together that nourish your relationship.”

As for controlling the time children spend on digital media, the Harvard guide states emphatically that it is the parents’ responsibility: “Since the devices can be turned on anytime, you as a parent need to monitor their use, keep track of time, and then make sure the agreed upon rules are followed.”

Students Reading E-Books Are Losing Out, Study Suggests

The New York Times Motherlode Blog

Could e-books actually get in the way of reading?

That was the question explored in research presented last week by Heather Ruetschlin Schugar, an associate professor at West Chester University, and her spouse, Jordan T. Schugar, an instructor at the same institution. Speaking at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia, the Schugars reported the results of a study in which they asked middle school students to read either traditional printed books or e-books on iPads. The students’ reading comprehension, the researchers found, was higher when they read conventional books.

In a second study looking at students’ use of e-books created with Apple’s iBooks Author software, the Schugars discovered that the young readers often skipped over the text altogether, engaging instead with the books’ interactive visual features.

While their findings are suggestive, they are preliminary and based on small samples of students. More substance can be found in the Schugars’ previous work: for example, a paper they published last year with their colleague Carol A. Smith in the journal The Reading Teacher. In this study, the authors observed teachers and teachers-in-training as they used interactive e-books with children in kindergarten through sixth grade. (The e-books were mobile apps, downloadable from online stores like iTunes.)

While young readers find these digital products very appealing, their multitude of features may diffuse children’s attention, interfering with their comprehension of the text, Ms. Smith and the Schugars found. It seems that the very “richness” of the multimedia environment that e-books provide — heralded as their advantage over printed books — may overwhelm children’s limited working memory, leading them to lose the thread of the narrative or to process the meaning of the story less deeply.

This is especially true of what the authors call some e-books’ “gimmicks and distractions.” In the book “Sir Charlie Stinky Socks and the Really Big Adventure,” for example, children can touch “wiggly woos” to make the creatures emit noise and move around the screen. In another e-book, “Rocket Learns to Read,” a bird flutters and sounds play in the background.

Such flourishes can interrupt the fluency of children’s reading and cause their comprehension to fragment, the authors found. They can also lead children to spend less time reading over all: One study cited by Ms. Smith and the Schugars reported that children spent 43 percent of their e-book engagement time playing games embedded in the e-books rather than reading the text.

By contrast, the authors observed, some e-books offer multimedia features that enhance comprehension. In “Miss Spider’s Tea Party,” for example, children hear the sound of Miss Spider drinking as they read the words “Miss Spider sipped her tea.” In another e-book, “Wild About Books,” sounds of laughter ring out as the reader encounters the line “Hyenas shared jokes with the red-bellied snakes.”

The quality of e-books for children varies wildly, the authors said: “Because the app market allows for the distribution of materials without the rigorous review process that is typical of traditional children’s book publishing, more caution is necessary for choosing high-quality texts.”

They advise parents and teachers to look for e-books that enhance and extend interactions with the text, rather than those that offer only distractions; that promote interactions that are relatively brief rather than time-consuming; that provide supports for making text-based inferences or understanding difficult vocabulary; and that locate interactions on the same page as the text display, rather than on a separate screen. (E-books recommended by the authors are listed below.)

Once the e-books are selected, parents and teachers must also help children use them effectively, Ms. Smith and the Schugars said. This can include familiarizing children with the basics of the device. Although adults may assume that their little “digital natives” will figure out the gadgets themselves, the researchers have found that children often need adult guidance in operating e-readers.

Parents and teachers should also help children in transferring what they know about print reading to e-reading. Children may not automatically apply reading skills they have learned on traditional books to e-books, and these skills, such as identifying the main idea and setting aside unimportant details, are especially crucial when reading e-books because of the profusion of distractions they provide.

Lastly, adults should ensure that children are not overusing e-book features like the electronic dictionary or the “read-to-me” option. Young readers can often benefit from looking up the definition of a word with a click, but doing it too often will disrupt reading fluidity and comprehension. Even without connecting to the dictionary, children are able to glean the meaning of many words from context. Likewise, the read-to-me feature can be useful in decoding a difficult word, but when used too often it discourages children from sounding out words on their own.

Research shows that children often read e-books “with minimal adult involvement,” Ms. Smith and the Schugars said. While we may assume that interactive e-books can entertain children all by themselves, such products require more input from us than books on paper do.

Recommended E-Books

For beginning readers

“Blue Hat, Green Hat” by Sandra Boynton

“Go, Clifford, Go!” by Norman Bridwell

“Meet Biscuit” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli

“Nickelby Swift, Kitten Catastrophe” by Ben Hecht

“Miss Spider’s Tea Party” by David Kirk

“A Fine Musician” by Lucy Thomson

For fluent readers

“Slice of Bread Goes to the Beach” by Glenn Melenhorst

“Who Would Win? Killer Whale Vs. Great White Shark”by Jerry Pallotta

“Wild About Books” by Judy Sierra

“The Artifacts” by Lynley Stace and Dan Hare

Read more of the latest research on how children learn, like “How to Build Children’s ‘Print Knowledge’ While You Read Together,” and “Get Your Kids Using Their Devices to Learn — With an App Purge,” on Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog. Ms. Paul is the author of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences, and “Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter,” to be published by Crown in 2015.

What Machines Can’t Do

The New York Times

FEB. 3, 2014

We’re clearly heading into an age of brilliant technology. Computers are already impressively good at guiding driverless cars and beating humans at chess and Jeopardy. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out in their book “The Second Machine Age,” computers are increasingly going to be able to perform important parts of even mostly cognitive jobs, like picking stocks, diagnosing diseases and granting parole.

As this happens, certain mental skills will become less valuable because computers will take over. Having a great memory will probably be less valuable. Being able to be a straight-A student will be less valuable — gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests. So will being able to do any mental activity that involves following a set of rules.

But what human skills will be more valuable?

In the news business, some of those skills are already evident. Technology has rewarded sprinters (people who can recognize and alertly post a message on Twitter about some interesting immediate event) and marathoners (people who can write large conceptual stories), but it has hurt middle-distance runners (people who write 800-word summaries of yesterday’s news conference). Technology has rewarded graphic artists who can visualize data, but it has punished those who can’t turn written reporting into video presentations.

More generally, the age of brilliant machines seems to reward a few traits. First, it rewards enthusiasm. The amount of information in front of us is practically infinite; so is that amount of data that can be collected with new tools. The people who seem to do best possess a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity. Maybe they started with obsessive gaming sessions, or marathon all-night study sessions, but they are driven to perform extended bouts of concentration, diving into and trying to make sense of these bottomless information oceans.

In his book, “Smarter Than You Think,” Clive Thompson describes the work of Deb Roy, who wired his house with equipment so he and his team could monitor and record every word he and his wife uttered while his son was learning to speak. That is total commitment and total immersion in an attempt to understand the language learning process.

Second, the era seems to reward people with extended time horizons and strategic discipline. When Garry Kasparov was teaming with a computer to play freestyle chess (in which a human and machine join up to play against another human and machine), he reported that his machine partner possessed greater “tactical acuity,” but he possessed greater “strategic guidance.”

That doesn’t seem too surprising. A computer can calculate a zillion options, move by move, but a human can provide an overall sense of direction and a conceptual frame. In a world of online distractions, the person who can maintain a long obedience toward a single goal, and who can filter out what is irrelevant to that goal, will obviously have enormous worth.

Third, the age seems to reward procedural architects. The giant Internet celebrities didn’t so much come up with ideas, they came up with systems in which other people could express ideas: Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc. That is to say they designed an architecture that possesses a center of gravity, but which allowed loose networks of soloists to collaborate.

One of the oddities of collaboration is that tightly knit teams are not the most creative. Loosely bonded teams are, teams without a few domineering presences, teams that allow people to think alone before they share results with the group. So a manager who can organize a decentralized network around a clear question, without letting it dissipate or clump, will have enormous value.

Fifth, essentialists will probably be rewarded. Any child can say, “I’m a dog” and pretend to be a dog. Computers struggle to come up with the essence of “I” and the essence of “dog,” and they really struggle with coming up with what parts of “I-ness” and “dog-ness” should be usefully blended if you want to pretend to be a dog.

This is an important skill because creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.

In the 1950s, the bureaucracy was the computer. People were organized into technocratic systems in order to perform routinized information processing. But now the computer is the computer. The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalized or neutral. It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind.

Unable to compete when it comes to calculation, the best workers will come with heart in hand.

My Kids Are Obsessed With Technology, and It’s All My Fault

The New York Times

Illustration by Tom Gauld
By STEVE ALMOND
Published: June 21, 2013

A few months ago, I attended my daughter Josie’s kindergarten open house, the highlight of which was a video slide show featuring our moppets using iPads to practice their penmanship. Parental cooing ensued.

I happened to be sitting next to the teacher, and I asked her about the rumor I’d heard: that next year, every elementary-school kid in town would be provided his or her own iPad. She said this pilot program was being introduced only at the newly constructed school three blocks from our house, which Josie will attend next year. “You’re lucky,” she observed wistfully.

This seemed to be the consensus around the school-bus stop. The iPads are coming! Not only were our kids going to love learning, they were also going to do so on the cutting edge of innovation. Why, in the face of this giddy chatter, was I filled with dread?

It’s not because I’m a cranky Luddite. I swear. I recognize that iPads, if introduced with a clear plan, and properly supervised, can improve learning and allow students to work at their own pace. Those are big ifs in an era of overcrowded classrooms. But my hunch is that our school will do a fine job. We live in a town filled with talented educators and concerned parents.

Frankly, I find it more disturbing that a brand-name product is being elevated to the status of mandatory school supply. I also worry that iPads might transform the classroom from a social environment into an educational subway car, each student fixated on his or her personalized educational gadget.

But beneath this fretting is a more fundamental beef: the school system, without meaning to, is subverting my parenting, in particular my fitful efforts to regulate my children’s exposure to screens. These efforts arise directly from my own tortured history as a digital pioneer, and the war still raging within me between harnessing the dazzling gifts of technology versus fighting to preserve the slower, less convenient pleasures of the analog world.

What I’m experiencing is, in essence, a generational reckoning, that queasy moment when those of us whose impatient desires drove the tech revolution must face the inheritors of this enthusiasm: our children.

It will probably come as no surprise that I’m one of those annoying people fond of boasting that I don’t own a TV. It makes me feel noble to mention this — I am feeling noble right now! — as if I’m taking a brave stand against the vulgar superficiality of the age. What I mention less frequently is the reason I don’t own a TV: because I would watch it constantly.

My brothers and I were so devoted to television as kids that we created an entire lexicon around it. The brother who turned on the TV, and thus controlled the channel being watched, was said to “emanate.” I didn’t even know what “emanate” meant. It just sounded like the right verb.

This was back in the ’70s. We were latchkey kids living on the brink of a brave new world. In a few short years, we’d hurtled from the miraculous calculator (turn it over to spell out “boobs”!) to arcades filled with strobing amusements. I was one of those guys who spent every spare quarter mastering Asteroids and Defender, who found in video games a reliable short-term cure for the loneliness and competitive anxiety that plagued me. By the time I graduated from college, the era of personal computers had dawned. I used mine to become a closet Freecell Solitaire addict.

Midway through my 20s I underwent a reformation. I began reading, then writing, literary fiction. It quickly became apparent that the quality of my work rose in direct proportion to my ability filter out distractions. I’ve spent the past two decades struggling to resist the endless pixelated enticements intended to capture and monetize every spare second of human attention.

Has this campaign succeeded? Not really. I’ve just been a bit slower on the uptake than my contemporaries. But even without a TV or smartphones, our household can feel dominated by computers, especially because I and my wife (also a writer) work at home. We stare into our screens for hours at a stretch, working and just as often distracting ourselves from work.

Our children not only pick up on this fraught dynamic; they re-enact it. We ostensibly limit Josie (age 6) and Judah (age 4) to 45 minutes of screen time per day. But they find ways to get more: hunkering down with the videos Josie takes on her camera, sweet-talking the grandparents and so on. The temptations have only multiplied as they move out into a world saturated by technology.

Consider an incident that has come to be known in my household as the Leapster Imbroglio. For those unfamiliar with the Leapster, it is a “learning game system” aimed at 4-to-9-year-olds. Josie has wanted one for more than a year. “My two best friends have a Leapster and I don’t,” she sobbed to her mother recently. “I feel like a loser!”

My wife was practically in tears as she related this episode to me. It struck me as terribly sad that an electronic device had become, in our daughter’s mind, such a powerful talisman of personal worth. But even sadder was the fact that I knew, deep down, exactly how she felt.

This is the moment we live in, the one our childhoods foretold. When I see Josie clutching her grandmother’s Kindle to play Angry Birds for the 10th straight time, or I watch my son stuporously soaking up a cartoon, I’m really seeing myself as a kid — anxious, needy for love but willing to settle for electronic distraction to soothe my nerves or hold tedium at bay.

And if experiencing this blast from the past weren’t troubling enough, I also get to confront my current failings as a parent. After all, we park the kiddos in front of SpongeBob because it’s convenient for us, not good for them. (“Quiet time,” we call it. Let’s please not dwell on how sad and perverse this phrase is.) We make this bargain every day, even though our kids are often restless and irritable afterward.

Back in the day, when my folks snapped off the TV and exhorted us to pick up a book or go outside and play, they did so with a certain cultural credibility. Everyone knew you couldn’t experience the “real world” by sitting in front of a screen. It was an escape. Today, screens are the real world, or at least the accepted means of making us feel a part of that world. And they can no longer be written off as mind-rotting piffle. “The iPad is an educational tool, Papa!” Josie declared last month, after hearing me grouse about Apple’s efforts to target the preschool demographic.

Her own experience learning to read is a case in point. We spent a year coaxing her to try beginner books. Even with the promise of our company and encouragement, it was a tough sell. Then her teacher sent home a note about a Web site that allows kids to listen to stories, with some rudimentary animation, before reading them and taking a quiz to earn points. She has since plowed through more than 50 books.

Josie never fails to remind me that “the reading” is her least favorite part of this activity. And when she does, I feel (once again) that I’m face to face with myself as a kid: more interested in racking up points than embracing the joys of reading. What I’m lamenting isn’t that she prefers to read off a screen but that the screen alters and dilutes the imaginative experience.

It is unfair, not to mention foolish, for me to expect my 6-year-old to seek redemption in the same way I did, only at age 25. Her job is to make the same sometimes-impulsive decisions I made as a kid (and teenager and young adult). And my job is to let her learn her own lessons rather than imposing mine on her.

Still, I can’t be the only parent feeling whiplashed by the pace of technological changes, the manner in which every conceivable wonder — not just the diversions but also the curriculums and cures, the assembled beauty and wisdom of the ages — has migrated inside our portable machines. Is it really possible to hand kids these magical devices without somehow dimming their sense of wonder at the world beyond the screen?

In the course of mulling this question, I stumbled across an odd trove of videos (on YouTube, naturally) in which parents proudly record their babies operating iPads. One girl is 9 months old. Her ability to manipulate the touch screen is astonishing. But the clip is profoundly eerie. The child’s face glows like an alien as she scrolls from app to app. It’s like watching some bizarre inverse of Skinner’s box, in which the child subject is overrun by choices and stimuli. She seems agitated in the same way my kids are after “quiet time” — excited without being engaged.

As I watched her in action, I found myself wondering how a malleable brain like hers might be shaped by this odd experience of being the lord of a tiny two-dimensional universe. And whether a child exposed to such an experience routinely might later struggle to contend with the necessary frustrations and mysteries of the actual world.

I realize the human brain is a supple organ. My daughter may learn to use technology in ways I never have: to focus her attention, to stimulate her imagination, to expand her sense of possibility. And I know too that most folks view their devices as relatively harmless paths to greater efficiency and connectivity.

But I remain skeptical.

Because aren’t we just kidding ourselves? When we whip out our smartphones in line at the bank, 9 times out of 10 it’s because we’re jonesing for a microhit of stimulation, or that feeling of power that comes with holding a tiny universe in our fist.

The reason people turn to screens hasn’t changed much over the years. They remain mirrors that reflect a species in retreat from the burdens of modern consciousness, from boredom and isolation and helplessness.

It’s natural for children to seek out a powerful tool to banish these feelings. But the only reliable antidote to such burdens, based on my own experience, is not immersion in brighter and mightier screens but the capacity to slow our minds and pay sustained attention to the world around us. This is how all of us — whether artists or scientists or kindergartners — find beauty and meaning in the unceasing rush of experience. It’s how we develop empathy for other people, and the humility to accept our failures and keep struggling. It’s what grants my daughter the patience to wait for the cardinal who has taken to visiting the compost bin on our back porch.

I imagine the iPad Josie receives at school next year will have access to a vast archive of information and videos about cardinals, ones she’ll be able to call up and peruse instantly. But no flick of the thumb will ever make her suck in her breath as she does when, after five excruciating minutes, an actual cardinal appears on the porch railing in a flash of impossible red. I hope Josie remembers that all her life. I hope we both do.

A version of this article appeared in print on June 23, 2013, on page MM44 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: ‘The iPads Are Coming!’.

How One College Is Closing The Computer Science Gender Gap

National Public Radio

by WENDY KAUFMAN

May 01, 2013 5:15 PM
Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe talks to a group of newly admitted students on the campus in Claremont, Calif. Klawe has had a great deal of success getting more women involved in computing.

Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe talks to a group of newly admitted students on the campus in Claremont, Calif. Klawe has had a great deal of success getting more women involved in computing.

Courtesy of Harvey Mudd College

This story is part of our series The Changing Lives of Women.

There are still relatively few women in tech. Maria Klawe wants to change that. As president of Harvey Mudd College, a science and engineering school in Southern California, she’s had stunning success getting more women involved in computing.

Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe often uses her longboard to get around campus and chat with students like senior Xanda Schofield.

Wendy Kaufman/NPR

Klawe isn’t concerned about filling quotas or being nice to women. Rather, she’s deeply troubled that half the population is grossly underrepresented in this all-important field. Women aren’t setting the agenda and designing products and services that are shaping our lives. They’re getting only about 18 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science, and in the workplace their numbers aren’t much higher.

Seated in her modest office on the Claremont, Calif., campus, Klawe, 61, reflects on the stereotype of computer scientists as anti-social nerds, saying it’s out of date. But she is quick to add that women often face barriers spoken and unspoken that discourage them from entering the field.

She recalls her own experience growing up in Canada, where she was a top university math student.

“Professors would say to me all the time, ‘Why do you want to be a mathematician, Maria? There are no good women mathematicians.’ And it just really bugged me,” Klawe says.

And that helps explain a career choice she would make decades later. Back in 2005, Klawe was thriving as dean of the engineering school at Princeton. But when Harvey Mudd College approached her about becoming the school’s president, she was intrigued. She saw an opportunity to change science and engineering education.

“We’re not attracting and retaining enough talent, and especially in areas like computer science. And I think what I recognized was this might be a place that could actually make a difference with that,” Klawe says.

With just 800 students and an emphasis on teaching, Klawe believed that Mudd would be an ideal laboratory.

Finding A Passion In Computer Science

More than 100 students are paying rapt attention in Colleen Lewis’ second-semester computer science course, and a lot of them are women.

“A lot of universities have this kind of weed-out class,” says Kate Finlay, a student at nearby Scripps College who’s taking Lewis’ course. “The first class you take is a weed-out class, and they are shocked by the fact they don’t get any women at the end. But the only people at the end are the people who have been in computer camp since they were 5.”

Kate Finlay, a student at neighboring Scripps College, got hooked on computer science after taking classes at Harvey Mudd.

Kate Finlay, a student at neighboring Scripps College, got hooked on computer science after taking classes at Harvey Mudd.

Courtesy of Kate Finlay

What Harvey Mudd recognized and explicitly addressed were ways to get women interested in computer science, so students like Finlay who’ve never been to computer camp have their own introductory classes. The kids with experience have theirs. Know-it-alls in any section are told to cool it so no one is intimidated. As for the content, Finlay says it’s designed around problems they can relate to.

“They had all these really fun assignments — sound editing Darth Vader’s voice; every single answer on the quizzes was 42, in a reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Finlay says. “It was so much fun; it was so much fun.”

Finlay, who had planned to study art and psychology, found a new passion in computer science.

Along with changes to the introductory courses, Mudd works hard to keep women interested in the field. First-year students attend a giant conference for women in computing. There are research opportunities and coursework that involve solving real problems for major companies. Technology experts like Alan Eustace, a senior vice president at Google, are applauding the initiatives.

“I think they’re fantastic,” Eustace says. He also cites Mudd’s rigorous academics and the critical mass of women studying together.

“They also have great female instructors, and I think that makes a big difference. … Harvey Mudd is an example of what I consider a model for the future,” he says.

Much of this might sound pretty basic, but the approach is highly unusual in higher education, and the efforts have paid off. At Mudd, about 40 percent of the computer science majors are women. That’s far more than at any other co-ed school.

As for the male students here, they seem to appreciate and value having more women in their computer science courses.

“Women and men work through problems in very different ways,” says Luke Mastalli-Kelly. “Men will oftentimes just try to pound through a problem, and then one of the women will be, ‘Wait, hold on, how about if I ask this question?’ ”

Jess Hester, a senior at Harvey Mudd, says she wants to write software for spaceships when she graduates.

Jess Hester, a senior at Harvey Mudd, says she wants to write software for spaceships when she graduates.

Courtesy of Jess Hester

Their questions can lead to further exploration and perhaps a more elegant solution. Indeed, technology companies say they want more women because diverse teams often do a better job of solving problems and creating things.

‘I Want To Do That’

Senior Jess Hester was one of several female computer science students who offered their views on why there are so few women in their field. They bemoaned middle and high school math teachers who didn’t engage or inspire. They recounted conversations with adults who told them, “Men are better at this.” And they shared some apprehension about working in a male-dominated environment.

“If you fail, it’s not just you. It is you as like a sacrificial lamb for your whole gender. It’s just like a bucket of stress that we don’t need,” Hester says. “But I also want little kids to look up and be like, ‘Awesome. I want to do that.’ ”

And that would be music to Klawe’s ears. She says if you can make computer science interesting to women, empower them so they believe they can succeed, and then show them how their work can make a difference in the world, “that’s almost enough to change everything.”

Klawe is now working on a new project — a massive open online course, or MOOC, aimed at 10th-graders. It’s just one more way the president of Harvey Mudd hopes to get more women at the technology table.

Google Exec to Girls: The Technology Industry Needs You

Editor’s note: Susan Wojcicki, called by Forbes magazine “the most powerful woman in Advertising,” is senior vice president of advertising and commerce at Google, where she has worked since 1999. This open letter to the girls of the world is part of the “Girl Rising” project. CNN Films’ “Girl Rising” documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world.

(CNN) — Dear Girls of the World,

The technology industry needs you.

Around the world, people are watching movies on laptops, buying goods online and connecting with friends and family through mobile devices. All of these experiences are powered by technology, created by people just like you.

Girls of the world, the tech industry is waiting for you. The skills you learn in your math and sciences classes today are the foundation for building technology that will touch nearly every aspect of our lives in the future — your future. If you invest in learning technical skills, soon you won’t just be consuming technology, you’ll be defining it, creating it and sharing it with people all over the world.

Susan Wojcicki

Susan Wojcicki

The tech industry is growing faster than nearly all other industries today. In fact, computer programming jobs are growing at two times the U.S. national average. And it’s still very early days. Google, for example, is only in its teenage years. The opportunities for a career in technology will only continue to grow as an additional 5 billion people around the world come online.

Yet despite being a ripe career field, the tech industry is losing women. In the United States, according to one report: “young women earned 37% of computer science degrees in 1985; today, the number has plummeted to 18%. Some 22% of software engineers at tech companies are women.” It’s a deficiency we see mirrored around the world.

If this trend continues, fewer women will have the skills necessary to participate in the tech sector. As a result, fewer women will hold leadership positions in tech, and we’ll miss out on the opportunity for women to shape the world around us. This isn’t a problem just for women, but for everyone. Innovation thrives on diversity, and we simply can’t afford for the future of technology not to represent women or people with different backgrounds and experiences.

That’s why it’s so important for tech leaders to reach out to girls with encouragement. We need to share our enthusiasm and show them all the amazing opportunities available today. Getting girls excited about technology isn’t just a job for educators, it’s a responsibility for all of us.

We also need to create more opportunities for girls to learn technical skills. We have a great start with programs such as theKhan Academy and Code.org that give people access to computer programming education. There are also fantastic local programs that connect girls with communities of other like-minded girls to learn together.

For example, Google supports a program called Girlstart that provides science, technology, engineering and mathematics education to girls through afterschool programs and camps. But there are also many girls out there struggling to find access to even the most basic education. The Google RISE Awards helps to bridge this gap by funding science and technology education for primary and secondary school students around the world. And initiatives such as Girl Rising put a spotlight on just how powerful access to education can be for young women.

For girls who don’t benefit from support early on, it’s also important to remember that it’s never too late to get started. I was finishing up my senior year of college, studying history and literature, when I decided to get into tech. I wondered if it was too late to change paths, but I decided to do it anyway. Years later, I joined a new startup — Google — and I’ve never looked back. For all the girls out there who think it’s too late to get into tech, know that it’s never too late to pursue a good opportunity, even if it means taking a different path.

So, people of the world, let’s help girls rise up in the field of technology and support them with the programs they need. If you’re in technology, talk to your daughters, nieces and friends about just how cool it is to work in tech. And we can all help them find internships, encourage them in their studies and foster their creative spirits.

The future of technology affects us all. Let’s all work together to build it.

— Susan Wojcicki