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CLAREMONT, CA 112012- Students Xanda Schofield,(right) and Meredith Murphy, during a computer science class at Harvey Mudd College, which is hoping to attract more women students interested in Math and Science.

J. Emilio Flores/The Globe and Mail

There is a notion gaining traction with administrators eager to recruit more women to hard sciences, where they remain badly underrepresented: Focus less on the minutiae and more on how the discipline's skills can be used to make a social impact.

In the so-called "PCEM" subjects – physical sciences, computer science, engineering and mathematics – only 24 per cent of students are women, and fewer than 15 per cent of their professors are female.

"It's just appealing to what they think is important," said University of Ottawa engineering professor Catherine Mavriplis. Several studies suggest "a lot of women are very socially minded – they want to help people."

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Dr. Mavriplis points to Queen's University, where nearly a third of bachelor's students in computing are women – far above the average. The school has an option in biomedical computing – which incorporates the life sciences, where women are a strong majority of students – and it has proven popular. "You don't even have to change the course that much. You still have the heavy programming, but just tell them, 'okay, we're going to calculate how many blood cells there are in this blood.'"

Not everyone agrees, however. Wilfrid Laurier University quantum physicist Shohini Ghose agrees that learning practical applications can help engage students, but fears it is wrong-headed to treat that as a recruitment strategy.

"I understand why people do that because it works and it's a quick fix, maybe. But there's also dangers to that, because you don't want to use one stereotype to deal with another," she said. "I wish there was a way to convince everybody that science is not about gender. Because this way of doing it is saying, actually it is about gender."

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