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The Case of the Ping Pong Table

A Ping Pong table — the newest perk of our office has finally arrived.

A small crowd has gathered around it, buzzing with excitement. It took no time at all to take out the racquets and start playing. The air was filled with nostalgia of the past ping pong battles, with laughter over one’s rusty skills, and with happiness of sharing the new experience with others.

Very soon a hierarchy of players has emerged. We had the newbies excited about hitting the ball at all, the moderate-skilled level of being able to pass the ball a couple of times back and forth, and, of course, the top of the pyramid — players whose games it was hard to even follow.

Despite the ping pong table being a shared resource and open to all, an elite clique of players emerged over time. They were the ones usually found at the table, playing with each other vigorously and elevating each other in the process. Soon enough, their level has advanced far beyond everybody else, and everybody but the elite stopped using the ping pong table.

What is the point of playing if one has no chance of winning? What is the point of going through the humiliation of the frustration with your skill level by your opponent? What is the point of even trying if the elite players were so far ahead of one’s current skill level?

This year CMU has announced that the percentage of women in their first-year computer science class is 49.5%. It is in our power to make their experience different from the case of the Ping Pong table.

Some of the approaches discussed by Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates include:

  • separating the entry-level class into advanced and beginner sections to not discourage the students with no prior experience in computer science,
  • ensuring that the curriculum (both classroom material and problem sets) is interesting for females as well as males,
  • introducing more female associates and professors to provide an inspiration for females just entering the field,
  • moving the classes from basements to regular study halls to stop reinforcing the myth of the asocial geeks

However, it’s not just about the females and computer science. In the current post-industrial society people are expected to go through a couple of careers and fields in their lifetimes. Is our education system ready to provide equal-opportunity for all to enter any fields they would want at any stage of their lives?

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