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NCWIT 2013

May 31, 2013 Leave a comment

NCWIT attendees on a hike near Tucson, next to the giant saguaro cactus plants that the area is known for.The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) held their 2013 annual summit last week in Tucson Arizona. As usual, it was an impressive event, packed with notables from academia and industry.  NCWIT is a collection of companies, academic institutions, government agencies, and other groups working to increase women’s participation in computing-related fields through recruitment, retention, and advancement. The annual summit includes sessions that seek to appeal to everyone, as well as parallel breakout groups led by our Academic Alliance, a K-12 Alliance, a Workforce Alliance, and more. The resulting event is impossible for one person to absorb in its entirety, so this post captures my own highlights from the event.

From my perspective, a big success of the event was Aspirations in Computing, an initiative that seeks to encourage women throughout the computing pipeline—from high school through college and into computing careers.  I was really proud of Virginia Tech for being one of the universities at the forefront of this effort, thanks to our department head Barbara Ryder and fellow faculty member Libby Bradford.  They put in tons of work to identify students and connect with them personally and through offers of renewable scholarships, and it’s paying off with some impressive commits to CS@VT (including two in attendance at NCWIT, current student Elena Nadolinski and incoming student Allison Collier).  I’m hopeful that companies will step up to fund internships and scholarships targeting Aspirations award winners, and that others will step up to take part in this initiative.  A story about our VA/DC awards is a highlight story on the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing page at the time of the conference.

Another highlight of this event was the use of Flash Talks, 5 minute talks with a set of 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds.  As such, the presentations tended to be highly visual, giving a flavor of a project or effort but leaving it to the audience to pursue in-depth information.  It’s refreshing to see people rise to the occasion with this unfamiliar presentation style.  We got a quick glimpse of projects by national Aspirations award winners, high school teachers, startup reps, and more.  I did a joint Flash Talk with Leanne Smullen of SpotXchange, a small company in the Boulder CO area, that highlighted how Pacesetters can help both universities and companies.

And with regard to Pacesetters, we had a “touching base” meeting to exchange ideas.  Pacesetters is a program within NCWIT committed to increasing the number of technical women in computing.  Each Pacesetters organization commits to bringing in or retaining a named number of women through one or more programs (e.g., our goal to fund 5 Aspirations Awards at Virginia Tech each year).  We meet regularly to report on progress, to present new ideas, and to help overcome barriers.  Sometimes there are new ideas worth adopting and adapting, like UCSC’s Project Awesome “inreach” efforts.  And sometimes there’s progress on programs we’re looking to connect with, like Georgia Tech’s leadership in regional Grace Hopper events.  And other times there are reminders about materials that are available for use, like the many “in-a-box” and other programs that NCWIT provides for recruiting and retention.

There were lots of other valuable happenings as well.  NCWIT featured an excellent collection of keynotes, seeking to appeal to the diverse people in attendance with topics like MOOCS, stereotyping, and motivation.  The one that resonated with me was by open source developer Michael Schwern, who has been largely ostracized by his community for his activism relating to gender and diversity (longer post on this coming soon).  There were also lots of parallel workshops to choose from, including one led by Catherine Ashcraft on how male advocates can help promote gender diversity (stemming from her online report).  Details and materials from many of the events are or soon will be available from the summit archive and summit page.

Last but certainly not least, I presented the NCWIT Undergraduate Research Mentoring Awards.  I received this award in its inaugural year last year and volunteered to co-chair it this year with Pat Morreale.  This award recognizes faculty members who have worked to involve undergraduate students in research efforts.  We gave out four awards, to both senior and junior faculty members at both Ph.D.-granting and BS/MS-granting schools.  This years’ winners were Margaret Martonosi of Princeton, Anne Ngu of Texas State, Fay Cobb Payton of North Carolina State, and Cheryl Swanier of Fort Valley State.  The best part of the ceremony was listening to this year’s winners tell their stories, describing their success stories and reflecting on why they mentor students.  AT&T stepped in this year to sponsor the award with a $5000 institutional gift for each winner.  (And, they retroactively applied the sponsorship to last year’s winners, yeah!)  You can read more about the award—and nominate people for next year’s award!—at the award site.

So who should go to the NCWIT Annual Summit?  It’s open to representatives from member organizations, along with invited guests.  It’s wise to have some people who attend every year, to advance and refine their institutional approach to attracting and retaining women in computing and IT.  But it also seems wise to invite a few different people each year—we had our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the College Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, Bevlee Watford, in attendance this year for the first time, along with a current and an incoming Aspirations winners.  I’m hopeful that this breadth in attendees will help with NCWIT’s exposure, strengthening the organization moving forward.  It’s great to see familiar faces each year, but it’s also good when there are new faces as well.

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Learning Stuff from the Boy Scouts of America

May 24, 2013 Leave a comment

The Boy Scouts of America voted to allow homosexual boys to be scouts, reversing previous decisions extending back to the 1970s.  Perhaps most impactful, boys who were part of the Boy Scouts of America who came to the realization that they are gay previously would not be allowed to continue in the program.  Now, they are allowed to remain a part of Boy Scouts.

I feel scouts has been important for me and my family, 2013-03-03 12.36.19particularly over the last year as we transitioned back to the Blacksburg area. Prior to joining scouts, I’d thought it was targeted for fathers who don’t know what to do with their kids—the bumbling sitcom/cartoon dad with minimal competence with kids.  Instead, it was the opposite. I found that scouts encouraged and enabled me and other parents to connect with kids in lots of nurturing and supportive ways.  Some of the ways were in areas I knew a lot about: computing and skiing and chess.  And some ways were in fields that I enjoyed but wouldn’t have pursued on my own: visits to police stations and newspaper offices.  And in activities that pushed me into areas where I lacked knowledge and interest (but maybe my kids would like) like building the infamous pinewood derby car and camping out in the woods for extended times.  Most people associate scouting exclusively with outdoor activities like camping and tying knots and shooting arrows, and there’s certainly plenty of that.  But there’s also astronomy and maps and disability awareness and basketball and biking and pet care and photography and lots more.  Scout leaders work hard to put a modern spin on activities, with avenues for new activities to be added.  And there’s lots of flexibility to choose the best set of activities that meet the needs and interests of the great many boys who choose to participate in scouting.

Most importantly, I’ve found scouts to be very supportive of my boys–much more supportive than some organizations that claim to be more liberal and compassionate.  Over 100 years of dealing with boys has resulted in a rule structure that addresses the needs of the individuals and the group, realizing the unique gifts and issues that each person brings to the table. I’ve found the leadership to be knowledgeable and compassionate, often because they have experiences as scouts and parents that help guide their decision-making. And participation by the parents at every stage of the activities reflects the importance of growth and inclusion that is strengthened by this new ruling.

Many people are arguing that the decision by the Boy Scouts of America does not go far enough, because homosexual adult leaders are still banned from participating in scouting.  At the root of the arguments to ban homosexual leaders is a belief that homosexuality somehow is correlated with pedophilia, which doesn’t seem to be supported by any viable source. Others point to scouting’s roots in Christianity, but lots of branches of Christianity are accepting of homosexuality. I’m hopeful that the Boy Scouts of America leadership will continue to debate this point—it’s unclear why turning 18 and becoming an adult would somehow make a person unqualified to be part of scouting. But yesterday’s decision was an important step that I feel should be applauded.

There’s also a push to create alternate organizations that are similar to Boy Scouts, minus the religion and restrictions.  Certainly you should feel free to do that, if you wish. But I prefer to leverage the many years of experience captured in the Boy Scout experience, and work from within the organization to affect change. Leaders and participants in scouting will always have differing opinions than mine on a wide variety of issues—all I can do in that regard is hope that I can learn from them, and they can learn from me, and our boys can learn from all of us. That’s why I encourage my boys to take part in scouting.