Redesigning computer science classrooms to be less "geeky" could encourage more girls to take up the subject, new research suggests.
A study of 270 high-school students aged 14 to 18 showed that three times as many girls were interested in enrolling in a computer science class if the classroom was decorated with items such as art and nature pictures, rather than computer parts or Star Trek and videogame posters.
The University of Washington psychologists behind the study say that countering stereotypes could help teachers to narrow the gender gap in computer science by helping girls feel more at home.
"Our findings show that classroom design matters. It can transmit stereotypes to high-school students about who belongs and who doesn't in computer science," said lead researcher Allison Master.
"This is the earliest age we've looked at to study stereotypes about computer science. It's a key age group for recruitment into this field, because girls in their later adolescence are starting to focus on their career options and aspirations."
A paper published in The Journal of Educational Psychology explains how boys and girls were shown photos of two different computer science classrooms, one decorated in a stereotypically geeky way and the other much less so. The children were asked to say which classroom they preferred.
They were then asked to answer questions about their interest in enrolling in a computer science class, their sense of belonging in a computer science class and how much they thought they personally "fit" the computer science stereotype.
The researchers found that 68 per cent of girls preferred the non-stereotypical classroom, compared to 48 per cent of boys, and girls were almost three times more likely to say they would be interested in enrolling in a computer science course if the classroom looked like the non-stereotypical one. How the classroom looked didn't change boys' level of interest in computer science.
"Stereotypes make girls feel like they don't fit with computer science," Master said. "That's a barrier that isn't there for boys. Girls have to worry about an extra level of belonging that boys don't have to grapple with."
Changing computer science stereotypes to make more students feel welcome in high-school classrooms could help recruit more girls to the field, according to the researchers.
"Identity and a sense of belonging are important for adolescents," said co-author Andrew Meltzoff. "Our approach reveals a new way to draw girls into pipeline courses. It is intriguing that the learning environment plays such a significant role in engaging high-school girls in computer science."