NCWIT 2013

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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