Sunday, October 26, 2008

Join the Systers Mailing List

This post originally appeared on the Carleton University Women in Science and Engineering blog.

I belong to a mailing list called Systers:
Systers is the world’s largest email community of technical women in computing. It was founded by Anita Borg in 1987 as a small electronic mailing list for women in “systems”. Today, Systers broadly promotes the interests of women in the computing and technology fields. Anita created Systers to “increas[e] the number of women in computer science and mak[e] the environments in which women work more conducive to their continued participation in the field.”
This list is very well moderated to ensure that messages all members get stay on topic (less relevant conversations often continue off-list). There are so many different topics, ranging from "help! my supervisor hates me!" to "anyone know of a good job in web programming in this state?" No matter what is on your mind, you can be sure that there are nearly 3000 technical women willing to listed and help.

To give you an idea of the kind of thing you'll see on Systers, I would like to share this little tidbit that appeared there -- it is being shared anonymously with the permission of the author. She provides a really interesting analysis on the state of women in computing and how it has changed over the last few decades.
I started in computer science in the late 70's. Back then, about a third of the kids majoring in CS were women. I worked as a programmer at a hospital in the summer - all the programmers were women. They tended to work carefully, spending a lot of time on planning, talking to the users, and documentation. They all had children and left promptly at 5 to pick up the kids from babysitters.

Sometime in the late 80's, the field really changed. Everything became more male oriented. A cowboy culture started prevailing - the hero image was the lone gonzo developer who code frantically all night, but couldn't communicate with anyone. The ability to write and communicate seemed to be less valued by managers, whereas the ability to work long into the night became a way to score points. At my last job, many developers didn't show up until mid morning, but worked well into the evening. It was a real problem for me and the one other female developer - we both had kids and needed to leave by 5.

And now I have come full circle and am back doing healthcare development. But now, the hardcore developers are all men (the project managers and business analysts seem to be women though). And they can't write or communicate, and they brag endlessly about working until 3am.

So in short, I do think women are self-selecting out, but I don't think it is due to the nature of working with computers. The authors of that study are ignoring the fact that there used to be a lot of women in computer fields. I think that as the culture became more hardcore "male", women got out, starting a vicious cycle. The things that women often do well, writing and communicating, are now less valued, encouraging even more women to leave the field. Yes, I know we give lip service to the ability to work in teams and communicate with users, but the reality is that the developer who can bang out lots of code fast is always seen as more successful than the developer who can document designs well, or who is a careful tester.
I hope you'll consider joining Systers to discover the benefits of reading and contributing to topics like this one.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

GHC: Following Up on Contacts

It's been two weeks and a day since I've returned home from the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Keystone, Colorado. If you've been reading my posts documenting the travels so far, then you know just how amazing the experience was! There was just one thing I had left to get done: email the many contacts I made while I was there.

I made many connections via the CONNECT project (which I found to be an incredibly easy and useful way to gather attendee information), so I had to narrow my list down to those people who were the most important to the future of CU-WISE and to my own. I forced myself to send each of them an email earlier tonight, and am now crossing my fingers that they remember meeting me. Luckily, I recorded the context behind each person that I could, so I was able to add some memory-jogging details into my notes.

First I wrote to a woman from Intel I met during the speed networking event. She was excited about CU-WISE and thought there might be some potential to help us out with a mentoring program. And who knows - maybe we'd even be able to set up a sponsorship partnership?

Next, I touched base with a very energetic member of the Women 2.0 team. This organization promotes an entrepreneurial spirit among technical women, who often seem to avoid the idea of starting up a company of their own for some reason. I thought there could be potential to somehow collaborate and spread this spirit among our members here at Carleton University.

I sent a special thank-you to an instructor I met completely by chance during one of the conference's informal buffet dinners. We had a good chat about life as an instructor, and what it means to choose that path over that of a professor. It really helped me feel confident in my choice to aim for a career in teaching instead of one in both teaching and research.

Finally, I wrote to a women very involved with ACM-W (ACM's Committee on Women in Computing) and SIGCSE (ACM Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education). CU-WISE might like to have an ACM-W chapter some day (though we'll have to get a student chapter of ACM first!), and aims to hold a local celebration of women in computing when the group matures more (ACM-W provides excellent resources to help with this). The outreach activities we participate in are definitely related to SIGCSE, and I personally have an interest in the topic of computer science education.

This will be the first test of any serious networking efforts I have made so far; I'm quite excited to see who writes back and what they will say.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Connect With Computer Science

This article was originally written for

If you thought that computer science was all about sitting in boring old cubicles, pounding away on the keyboard and writing code all day, think again! You can connect computer science with just about anything you’re interested in.

Take video games, for instance. If you have a passion for entertaining others, you can use the coding skills you learn in college to help develop the next blockbuster hit in one of the fastest growing industries around. But it goes much further than just programming. If you’re the artistic type, for example, you might enjoy working on a game’s graphics. Or maybe you are more into the nuts and bolts of things, in which case maybe you’d rather get games working on all different types of machines. Then there’s that whole thing about making games think with artificial intelligence. Obviously, games open up a whole world of possibilities!

When was the last time you opened up Facebook to find out what your friends were up to? Sure, a web page may seem like a simple thing to create at first glance. Besides the security issues involved, you have to think about how to scale an application so that a million people can all use it at the same time. No user wants to get a page that is slow to load just because so many other people are using it at the same time. Concepts from computer science, like parallelization, can help ensure this doesn’t happen.

Have you ever found yourself fascinated by the human mind? If psychology gets you excited, then you’d be the perfect candidate to help design the next coolest human-computer interface. Mice are going out of style for better input methods like the touch screen popping up on popular devices like the iPhone. How will people interact with computers at home in the future? What implications of various new inputs are there? How can innovative new designs help special groups, like the elderly and disabled?

You can even connect computer science to medicine and biology. Computational biology might help find new ways of treating cancer or analyzing genome sequences. All those medical records scattered between hospitals and doctors offices might one day be digitized into one central database. Telemedicine may bring more care to remote areas in Africa.

Of course, these are just a few ways to get excited about the field. In reality, no matter what makes you jump with joy, you can use computer science to make it bigger, better, or faster.

GHC: Final Reflections

The last couple of days in Colorado were truly amazing. I spoke to several wonderful women who were able to give me some great advice and ideas, and got to go hiking with some awesome Google girls. This conference was the most fun, useful, inspiring, and enlightening I have heard of or been to yet.

Before the official conference came to a close Saturday morning, I met an instructor from Illinois who has been teaching with just her Master's. I have been leaning towards this career path (as opposed to being a professor) for many reasons, but after speaking to this person, I feel much more confident that this is the best choice. I think I will still try to pursue a PhD, if it all works out funding-wise, but concentrating on my better-than-usuals teaching ability seems to make the most sense. Even if I wouldn't get paid as much, I wouldn't have the pressures of running a research program or working all summer. For the sake of family life and using those talents that set me apart, I think this is the right thing. Thank you, Vida, for telling me about your experiences!

While two of the four of our travel group left Friday night/Saturday morning, Barb and I stayed until Sunday. On Saturday, we really wanted to go hiking, but didn't have a clue where to go. Luckily, I ran into Kendra from Google. I met her in New York at the Anita Borg Canada Scholar's Retreat, and mentioned our hope to hike. She said that a group of girls from Google (New York and California) would be meeting at the lobby 8am Saturday, and that we were welcome to join them. Perfect!

The hike was amazing. I was definitely out of breath very quickly thanks to the high altitude, but boy was it worth it! The views were simply amazing. It was also really nice to chat with the Google girls on the way, hearing about their experiences coming to the US for the first time, living in small apartments in New York City, and so on. Thanks for a great time, ladies!

Back at home, I am overwhelmed by the amount of information I gathered at Grace Hopper. I have much to go through! But this is a very good thing. For the first time, this pile of knowledge is filled with very useful stuff, particularly things that I might be able to use with CU-WISE for outreach or for talks to our members. I also plan on getting in touch with some of the contacts I made while there, though I haven't had the chance to yet.

Next year's conference is in Tucson, Arizona. Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 3, 2008

GHC: Recruiting High School Women Into Computer Science

In this birds-of-a-feather session, four panelists very briefly discussed the programs they are working with to outreach to high school girls and encourage their participation in computer science. After this, the audience participated by discussing their ideas and concerns on the topic.

To open the session, a list of possible reasons for declining female enrolment was once again provided. The usual points were made with a few new ones. For instance, the influence of girls' parents and the differences in spatial ability were suggested as potential problems.

Two of the programs stood out to me as being rather unique. The first was a summer camp type of program that targeted disadvantaged Hispanic students, and actually paid them a stipend to come, since doing so would mean not being able to have a summer job. The second was a mother-daughter program that had girls' mothers participate with their daughters. It emphasized realistic goal-setting and sought to build self-esteem. The mother-daughter idea is really compelling, and our Women in Science and Engineering group might use this idea for a high-school conference we've been thinking about doing.

A third panelist mentioned that outreach programs can easily run into sustainability issues including funding, energy, interest, critical mass of faculty involved, and the question of whether to target only females. One interesting idea was to tie outreach activities to academic coursework of computer science majors, where participating helped you earn credit. I think this is a really good idea and might even work for Carleton University's School of Computer Science (my school), as they really want to attract females as both students and faculty.

The discussion part of the session brought up some of the usual points as well as some new ones I hadn't heard before. Here's a list of some of the ideas I managed to write down:
  • Why can't outreach be considered a recruiting tool and thus get funding accordingly? One problem here is that it wasn't long ago that there were more than enough CS majors, even if they weren't female, so it was hard to make the recruitment argument.
  • Can the courses be sold as reasoning instead of computational thinking? Unfortunately, everyone has a different idea of what reasoning is...
  • Do these outreach programs interface with groups like the Girls Scouts? It didn't sound like it, but everyone thought it would be a good idea, especially for sustainability.
  • Schools should make it easier to do a double major with computer science (with more courses counting toward both) so girls can connect computer science with other areas.
  • A noted issue is that girls might get excited by the outreach programs but then have no high school courses in the subject. They may end being behind when they go to college and lose the confidence to try it there.
  • One way that one program helps dispel the geek image is allowing the girls to invite friends to monthly meet-ups that happen for a year after the summer camp.
  • "If everyone in this room was a mentor to one person, what a world of difference it would make!"
I hope to take some of the more unique ideas heard at this session and put them to use in our own endeavours. I hope that the rest of the crowd feels they can do the same.

GHC: Inspiring Girls in Technology: How to Make Every Outreach a Success

This session was absolutely fantastic. It was fun, interactive, and informative - everything an outreach activity should be!

Things kicked off with a quick "who are we" from the multiple presenters. Techbridge began by telling us about their after school and summer programs that have such innovative activities as building green doll houses and taking apart a lawnmower engine. Google briefly mentioned their pre-university initiatives and emphasized their ability to partner with other programs. The woman from Intel, originally from central Africa, spoke about how close this outreach stuff hits home for her. She grew up with a mother who always told her she could do anything, and not to listen to anyone who said otherwise. Her passion was truly inspiring.

After the welcomes, an ice-breaker was held, mainly to give an idea of how you can start off your own activities. The idea was to think about whether you strongly agreed or disagreed with particular statements, and stand in a line with the strongest agreer at one end and the strongest disagreer at the other. You had to talk to others to find out where you stood, relatively speaking. The takeaway is to always make sure you start with something interactive.

Next, a quick survey on what the audience felt girls imagine about science engineering revealed many of the usual answers. Geeky, boys, hard, failure, isolation, needing to be super smart, and working 24 hours a day. But we know that outreach helps. One Techbridge student was quoted as saying "I walked in there and I knew that's where I wanted to work." Not bad!

A recipe for success gave a good idea of how you might be able to organize the time during an outreach activity. The idea is to mix one part session and one part personal (informal and interactive), and give it time to develop. These tips were given:
  1. Start with a personal story.
  2. Share your passion.
  3. Make it interactive.
  4. Dispel stereotypes.
  5. Provide academic advice.
Finally, the Bag of Tricks was introduced as a way to collect activities that work and discard those that flopped. A few tricks, including CS Unplugged activities and Snap Circuits, were demonstrated. I already know and love the former, but I have to say that this circuit kit is really neat! It contains a bunch of parts that literally snap onto a clear, plastic board. If you complete a circuit correctly, you can turn on lights, play music, and so on, while demonstrating various concepts of current, voltage, parallel/series circuits, and so on. Very cool stuff, and apparently only about $20 for a kit.

I had to leave this session a bit early to catch the Birds of a Feather that overlapped with it a bit (to be blogged about next), but I have to say that this talk was very well done. I think the audience will walk away with a great ability to do their own activities and, certainly, the enthusiasm to want to.

GHC: Using Robots to Introduce Computer Programming to Middle Schools

This talk was given as part of the same session as the Artemis project and had many of the same themes. This time, the course focused on teaching how to program a robot and, I believe, ran for a couple of hours once a week for eight weeks. The goals were to expose kids to programming, present computing in an interesting way, and show that women could indeed work well with technology.

The course used a Scribbler robot for its cost effectiveness and robustness. It was developed at Georgia Tech and has a camera and Bluetooth. You can also stick a pen into it so that when you command it to move a certain way, it will draw pictures. An interactive Python shell could be used to enter commands for the robot to move.

The enrolment for this course ended up being almost all boys -- there was just one girl in the end. However, this one girl ended up being so good that the boys completely changed their mind about whether girls could "do" technology. Also, the students were younger than most outreach programs accept (7-13 years old), but the ideas should be adaptable to many situations.

Here's some of the advice given for this part of the session.
  • Kids like to explore, so give them an adventure. They robots can go on a mission to find certain things to take pictures of, like planets in a mock solar system.
  • Be sure to take time to interact with students one on one, especially with the younger children.
  • Present computing as a medium for creativity and see what they come up with.
  • Be innovative. When presenting the concept of variables, for example, Mad Libs were used.
  • Give them something to work with, like basic code snippets.
  • Abstract harder concepts, like loops, with more useful code snippets.
Although the undergraduate instructors of this course complained about problems with the robots, having way more boys than girls, and no prior teaching experience, it sounds to me like the course was a success both for the teachers and the students.

GHC: The Artemis Project: Teaching Computer Science to Adolescent Girls

A group of undergraduate girls presented to a full room for an afternoon session that showcased their work on the Artemis Project from Brown University. In addition to explaining what the project is, they also gave many helpful hints for anyone who might like to start their own outreach program.

A new group of students annually spend their summer teaching a free, five week technology camp to grade 8 girls. The course goals include providing a social network for these young women, as well as good role models. The organizers don't want to see the girls lose interest in science and technology because of social pressures. In addition to reaching out, of course, the undergrads gain experience teaching computer science.

The basic curriculum this past summer went something like this:
  • Basic computer literacy, including software like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint
  • Chance to take apart donated computers and learn about the hardware inside
  • Photoshop
  • HTML/CSS and web design via lectures and then step-by-step tutorials
  • Object-oriented programming with Alice
  • Basic algorithmic thinking
  • Simple Python programming
  • Robotics with Vex systems
Some of the key advice about running a course like this was to employ different teaching styles. Some kids prefer self-guided instructions, while others prefer step-by-step interactive tutorials. Being flexible is obviously important as well, since activities will always take more/less time that you expect. Some students pick up material faster than others, so add-on's and extensions should be available.

Another good tip is to understand the group you are working with. Maturity and experience levels will vary greatly, and cliques are inevitable. Try to pick out the leaders and pair them up with the struggling students to help them out. If someone is clearly not as interested as you'd hope, engage them in different ways, like giving them a special job as a helper in the lab. As was said during the talk, it can be "hard to make someone interested, but not hard to make them feel part of a community."

Finally, if you want to have faculty give presentations during the course, as this project did, make sure the presenters know to be interactive. Field trips that encourage team-building are great, as well as visits to more technical destinations like museums.

That more or less sums up the talk. I'm glad these students got the chance to present their experience at a technical conference (an opportunity I still haven't had as a Master's student). My only suggestion would be to speak slower at times. Otherwise, great job girls! I will certainly be thinking about these things if I run my computer science and games mini-course again next year.

GHC: A Busy Day

Today was a very busy day at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. There were talks all day, with barely enough time to enjoy the Systers lunch before rushing back to the conference centre. After more talks and some light buffet dinner, we enjoyed an awards ceremony complete with entertainment and dancing afterwards. I have three sessions to blog about (my assignment as a communities volunteer), and I do apologize that it's taking a bit longer than I'd hoped. At the same time, I suppose you were all enjoying the activities of the day just like me, so perhaps you won't notice the delay. :)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

GHC: The CU-WISE Perspective

The other three executive members of Carleton's Women in Science and Engineering are here with me in Colorado for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. They've been blogging their experiences on our new CU-WISE blog, so check it out to get the perspective of others on this wonderful conference!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

GHC: It's All About Networking

Another day at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and another flood of thoughts trying to escape my brain faster than I can write them down. Today was a pretty long day without much photography. There was a lot of networking, though! That's a main theme of this conference, and I have to say that learning to do it well is very important.

We all got to the conference centre pretty early this morning (two arrived at 7:00am, and the other two, including me, at 8:10am). We had various Hopper duties to fulfil, like being a greeter and running the t-shirt and Hopper registration booth. I helped with a session monitor training meeting and then watched over the Internet Cafe most of the day.

We also officially registered for the conference today. We got a nice bag with the conference poster on the front. It was filled to the brim with goodies, including notepads, pens, and even a book about key early programmers!

While checking out the loot, an undergraduate video blogger came by to see if we would say a few words. The result is a part of the video embedded below (or linked here). Skip ahead to 2:40 and then 3:37 to see us! We also helped take a little video of getting our badges scanned for the CONNECT project.

In the afternoon, I went to the resume clinic and ended up chatting with a professor about how to do an academic resume. Although many people wanted help getting a job in industry, this is exactly what I was hoping for!

Later, there was a speed networking event where we got four minutes to speak to another person and exchange contact information. Before this event, we were encouraged to think about our "30-second commercial" and use that to introduce ourselves. I didn't do a very good job because: (1) I wasn't planning on doing this, so I wasn't prepared; (2) it's really dry here in Colorado, probably because of the elevation, to my voice was dying quickly; and (3) the room was really noisy and I couldn't concentrate or hear the other person very well. I made a few contacts I think will be very useful, and ended up randomly "meeting" a fellow Anita Borg Scholarship finalist. Figures!

That brings me back to that main theme of networking again. Even in the welcome session for new GHC attendees, the word came up over and over again. It is truly one of the main purposes of the conference. We are here to meet other technical women, and our ability to make these connections meaningful could make the difference of fulfilling our dreams in the future. So many doors open by talking to the right person. I have not made huge efforts doing this yet, but I have been happy about the people I have met so far. The next two days will bring some interesting possibilities...