Thursday, May 21, 2009

Long Term Mentoring Program Idea

The image of computer science is something I have been thinking about for some time now. Through observation and experience, I have come to believe that the main problem is the lack of enthusiasm that young women often experience when the focus of the computer is as a machine. We need to show the appealing things that can be accomplished with the tool, and not focus on the tool itself. In addition to this, the social side of the field should be showcased. With this in mind, I propose an initiative that would combine a focus on social impact with mentoring and long-term follow up.

Inspired by the late Randy Pausch, I think that showing young women what they can do with computers first, and then showing the connections to computer science afterward, might be just the kind of 'head fake' required. This is a technique I have used in the past while teaching a week long mini-course for grade eight girls. The course's main topic was video games, but in reality, my students learned about computer graphics, usability design, artificial intelligence, and what the field of computer science really is.

The initiative is similar to a club, where a meeting would be held once a month for a year. These meetings would bring the participating girls together to learn about a new area of computer science each time. Videos, interactive activities, workshops, and other such teaching techniques provide unique and fun ways to show projects and products brought to the us via computer science. For example, a look into Facebook might provide motivation for learning about web programming, networking, and media storage. The last part of the meeting should more formally describe the computer science behind the examples the girls saw earlier. (and similar) activities might be used to demonstrate the more difficult concepts.

Because it's been widely accepted that girls in particular require positive role models, I would also like to see computer science students, teachers, and professionals paired up with the girls as mentors. These women must be wiling to make a long-term commitment that has them check up on their mentees on a regular basis. They would spend time one-on-one with the girls during the monthly meetings, helping them with the activities. They could also be available via email to answer any questions the girls might have outside of the meetings. Fun social activities during the meetings would help the mentor/mentee pairs become more comfortable with their counterparts, forming a lasting bond.

This program should be targeted to girls in grades eight and nine, as they would be old enough to discover an interest in computer science, yet young enough to be able to take the appropriate courses during their high school careers. The tricky aspect of this age is that it leaves several years before college, during which time the girls can easily change their minds about the image of computer science. To help alleviate this, a yearly reunion would be held to gather the girls and their mentors to be reminded of their experience and potential love of the field. This would also help solve the problem of virtual-only mentoring fizzling out over time.

The outcome of this program would not necessarily have to be that each girl chooses a career in computer science, or even science in general. While increasing the numbers of women enrolling in post-secondary programs in the field is a good thing, even gaining a positive outlook could be very beneficial. Even if it's not for them, the girls will speak positively about computer science, showing their friends that it can be a good field for women. How much this perception of computer science changes can be tracked via carefully designed surveys answered by participants before and after the program, as well as during the yearly reunions.

This was one of my essay responses for this year's Google Anita Borg Scholarship competition, of which I am again a finalist.


Kate said...

Good idea to post your essay! I hadn't thought of doing that! I think it's a great idea, too. Will you be able to follow up on it as a PhD student? :)

Gail Carmichael said...

Thanks! I'd love to read yours, too. I meant to post something last year, but never did. This is exactly as I submitted it. I think when I re-read it a while back I noticed a typo, but I was too lazy to read it when I posted here... hopefully it's not a bad one ;)

Carol Wapshere said...

It's probably a good idea - but what I don't get is, why is so much *effort* required to get girls interested in a career in computers?

I've been working in IT for 20 years and I just love it. I can see my style is different from a lot of the guys, but I'm confident in my own strengths. It's such a great career for a bright woman - I'm always learning, always solving problems - and I've been bale to tailor my work life around kids and several country moves.

When I did my comp sci degree there were maybe 20% girls in the course, though I don't know where they all went, because I'm pretty used to being the only woman on the team. Everyone thought more women would come into IT in time, but I don't see them at work, I don't see them at conferences. What's going on here? What's your take on why it's so unattractive to girls?

Gail Carmichael said...

ITmum: Sorry for taking so long to respond. I've been in mega-thesis-mode, and wanted to give a thoughtful answer :)

There are many reasons that girls don't get into computer science or IT. One is image - if the field continues to be seen as geeky or just for boys, many girls will avoid even trying it (especially during those delicate teenage years). This makes me sad, because some of them, had they truly given computers a chance, might have found a true calling!

Another is a lack of role models. The grade eight girls I did a week long comp sci mini course for were perceptive enough to give this as one of their reasons. It's like a vicious cycle, they said. I even just read an article in the paper about that, and the pull quote was, more or less, if you want more women in science and technology, then hire more women professors.

Anyway, I might be able to go on about this for hours ;) So I recommend going through some of my blog archives for more thoughts (probably the "women" tag will help narrow it down). Also, check our my school's Women in Science and Engineering blog.

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