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NCWIT 2016

June 22, 2016 Leave a comment

ncwit2016The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) held their 2016 annual summit last month in Las Vegas. The big news is that Virginia Tech received a NCWIT NEXT Award for our work on recruiting and retaining women in computer science (CS) and related areas. I’m particularly proud of my own work in reaching out to minority-serving institutions and in helping to craft CS-related minors (hopefully to be augmented with an HCI minor soon!), but this was definitely a team effort that included efforts by Barbara Ryder, Libby Bradford, Greg Farris, Deborah Tatar, Margaret Ellis, Bev Watford, and many others at Virginia Tech, plus a long list of NCWIT folks highlighted by our consultant Cathy Brawner, the Extension Services team, and the Pacesetters team.

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. As usual, the summit was an impressive event, packed with notables from academia and industry with keynotes and meet-and-greet events featuring exciting themes. Particularly motivating was the plenary by Melissa Harris-Perry from Wake Forest, who talked about getting more black women engaged in computing, particularly as professors. She called our Virginia Tech as a leader in this regard, particularly given the relatively large number of black women who have received PhD’s from here. But there’s certainly a need for more concerted efforts toward crafting welcoming environments for people in underrepresented groups.

Breakout groups help focus on topics of interest and importance to schools and groups with needs similar to our own. I attended meetings for the Academic Alliance and Extension Services, and workshops focused on diversity with respect to makerspaces, growth, pedogogy, and evaluation. One theme repeated at multiple venues that really resonated with me was the need for peer mentorship. We do a good job with this, but other ideas worth considering involve credit-based opportunities and other rewards for participation that enable and encourage a breadth of participation. This breadth can encourage diversity in the mentorship pool, and corresponding diversity in our student population. UC Irvine and the University of Wisconsin both have credit-based programs in place that reportedly are working well for them, and others have been considering adding them.

So who should attend the NCWIT Annual Summit?  It’s great to keep a foot in the door and make sure some people from your institution attend every year. But it’s also important to invite a few different people each year—we had myself, Barbara Ryder, and Libby Bradford there as regulars, but also our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the College Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, Bevlee Watford, for just the second time.  I’m hopeful that we’ll get some repeat attendees again next year, but it’s also good when there are new faces as well. Our departmental Diversity Committee will be under new leadership starting in the fall, so hopefully the new chairs will attend!

NCA&T Mobile Computing Faculty Development Workshop 2015

July 30, 2015 1 comment

Last week I attended a faculty development workshop on mobile computing at North Carolina A&T State University (NCA&T). ncatgroup2015The workshop was funded by the NSF HBCU-UP program as part of a 3-year grant (with one year remaining).  A goal of the grant is to assemble modules and materials that could be adopted or adapted for use in undergraduate courses. The modules, which were core to the workshop, are described at http://williams.comp.ncat.edu/mobile/. Attendees came from universities, 4-year and 2-year colleges, community colleges, and one K-12 specialist!

I was struck by the breadth of ways in which mobile computing is taught: freshman-level courses, multi-course tracks, upper-level courses, module-based topic-centered modules.  I was invited because I’ve taught a junior-level mobile design class for a number of years.  I talked with one of the organizers at SIGCSE earlier this year, and he encouraged me to apply.  Some of the modules were spot-on, really hitting on topics that I should have been including in my course all along–particularly those related to security and performance. Some were topics that I already covered (maps, sensors) and others were better suited for more introductory courses. But overall it was worthwhile to hear about the modules.

Even more valuable than the modules were the discussions.  There was a great interactive session in which we brainstormed implications of the differences in mobile (sensors, multiple cameras, multiple changing networks, touchscreens, security at download) vs desktop (virtual memory, peripherals, multi-user support, runtime security) and how that impacts teaching.  The introductory session, the breaks, and the reception gave opportunities to talk with other attendees about their teaching approaches.  And the workshop wrap-up session gave the subset of us who could stick around a chance to brainstorm ideas for how to organize the modules and materials, explore ways that an EDURange-style approach could be used for dissemination, and possibilities for a SIGCSE paper that details successful teaching modules.  With the grant continuing, I look forward to taking part in follow-up efforts.0721151331b

The NCA&T campus is lovely, tucked in near downtown Greensboro right across from (the even more beautiful?) women’s college Bennett College.  (Alas, as with many places they choose the summer when students area away to do their campus improvements, so some key landmarks were being repaired.) NCA&T is a historically-black university with strength in computing security and information assurance. I’d been to NCA&T before as part of another grant, and I grew up in Greensboro so I’m certainly familiar with the school and area, but it was great to go back and visit again.

NCWIT 2015

May 31, 2015 1 comment

The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) held its annual summit last week in Hilton Head, SC. NCWIT’s goal is to increase women’s participation in computing and technology fields through high-visibility events and activities that engage universities, colleges, companies, and government institutions. The NCWIT Summit balances headline events (keynotes, flashtalks, award announcements) with opportunities for focused discussion, posters, and workshops.

It seems like NCWIT always does a great job of lining up keynotes; my favorites were Ben Jealous and Karen Ashcroft. Former NAACP leader Ben Jealous talked about his experiences with prejudice and how it’s important to work hard to recognize and overcome it. CU communications prof Karen Ashcroft highlighted how changing the work environment is key to improving diversity, focusing on a re-valuing of skills, priorities, and communication habits. Most keynotes will be available on the NCWIT site in the near future (Ashcroft’s slides are already there).

Pacesetters wrapped up its latest two-year session last November, but the group met to discuss future directions. Pacesetters is a subset of NCWIT members that seeks to define and exercise approaches to diversity. The last few cohorts focused on increasing the number of “net new women”, though it seems that term was used in so many different ways that it lost much of its meaning. (And some companies were reluctant to supply such numbers.) It seems decided that the next two-year focus will be on “retention of women”, which seems could suffer from the same definitional issues. I look forward to seeing how the definition evolves, and how it might fit CS@VT’s needs and goals. In addition, several companies demoed software to help remove bias from the hiring and promotion bias; most relevant was Textio’s tool that automatically reviews job ads for biased words and phrases and suggests alternatives. Perhaps focusing on the retention and mentoring of women faculty, e.g., seeking to ensure a lack of bias in annual review letters, would be a possible Pacesetter direction.

NCWIT consists of several alliances—Virginia Tech is part of the Academic Alliance—that held various breakout activities during the summit. I took part in a panel on undergraduate mentoring of women and underrepresented minorities, providing direction and tips to about 15 attendees. I also showed off a poster of our work with Extension Services. I attended other breakout groups on pursuing funding, and I viewed posters on diversity activities at other institutions.

There were a few little hiccups along the way.  The workshops were overfull, and I couldn’t get in either I signed up for in advance.  (Unlike last year, when there were people lining the sides of the rooms of the most popular workshops, they just closed the doors when it was full…not sure which is better/worse, but neither worked for me!) The venue was beautiful but a bit small for our growing group—something that the organizers seem to realize and plan to move to correct. And the Aspirations award winners, so visible at the summit two years ago, seemed to be lurking in the shadows for the second year in a row. Our students seemed to enjoy the event, and they made lots of great contacts, but they weren’t as visible around the venue as I hoped. I realize this becomes increasingly difficult as the program grows.

Virginia Tech was well-represented since this was a “local” conference. Also in attendance from VT were fellow change leader Libby Bradford and four Virginia Tech undergrads. Libby had several presentations and meetings related to our participation in the Aspirations program. Our undergrads were invited to lots of dinners and other meetups with companies and organizations. I served on a panel titled “How to be an award-winning mentor”, focused on ways to engage with young women through research experiences. We’re putting together a collection of tips that will be posted online soon. I also presented a poster about our involvement with NCWIT’s Extension Services—big thanks to Cathy Brawner of NCWIT for helping out with that.

As always, a big plus was connecting with the great people in attendance. It’s always wonderful to talk with the positive and energetic NCWIT staff, especially Kim Kalahar and Jill Ross. Organizations from the state of Virginia had an informal meetup, corralled by JMU department head Sharon Simmons. There were countless regulars in attendance that I connected with, and I caught up with lots of VT alums, including Cheryl Seals and Felicia Doswell, And there were plenty of new faces and new ideas; e.g., Hai Hong from Google told me about CS-first.com as a possibility for expanding what our CS Squared outreach club does, and several new faculty attendees discussed the possibility of joint hackathons.

It’s always great to connect with this enthusiastic group. Pacesetters kicks off a new cohort in November, and Virginia Tech may be part of that. And next year’s summit will be in Las Vegas—no longer local, but certainly a popular destination.

ASSETS 2014

November 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Last month I attended the ASSETS conference for the second time. ASSETS is the flagship conference for the ACM special interest group on accessible technology (SIGACCESS). Even in the face of recent growth, ASSETS remains a single track conference, keeping the numbers of attendees around 150 and thus keeping everyone in the same room. That makes it easier to get a sense of the major players in the community and details about the set of most important topics for this community. ASSETS this year was in Rochester NY, two years ago I attended in Boulder CO. ASSETS 2015 will be in Portugal—we’ll see if they do as good a job!

Rochester was a great place for ASSETS, as the host schools Rochester Institute of Technology and University of Rochester both have large groups focused on disability issues–RIT hosted the reception in a building dedicated to research on disabilities. It was eye-opening to go to one of the floors populated by deaf researchers—clearly the culture was to use sign language to communicate, and they were in the process of accomplishing great things. I’d encourage any student or researcher who wants to develop interfaces for people with sensory impairments to look closely at RIT. A second reception was at Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play—great fun. Other conference highlights include a well-attended poster session and some excellent paper sessions.

The biggest presence seemed to be from UMBC with 17 people, thanks to Amy Hurst and the recently departed Shaun Kane and their students leading many papers and posters and such. Hosts RIT and U of R had groups in attendance, along with the University of Colorado, the University of Washington, IBM, and others. We had a good VT crowd in attendance, with Ph.D. students Bobby Beaton and Shuo Niu along with alums Walter Lasecki and Stacy Branham. Walter is finishing up at U of R (and CMU, sort of, as his advisor moved there) and Stacy is in the middle of a postdoc at UMBC.  Hire them!  Hire them all!

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Hokies past and present at ASSETS 2014.

So who should submit to this conference? The dominant presence focuses on researchers who look at physical disabilities, though there are a good number of papers that consider cognitive disabilities instead.  Just about every paper included some sort of user testing, with a focus to include people with disabilities in the testing. Clearly there were a lot of regulars at the conference, but it seems to be a welcoming community that wants to grow and include other researchers (though if it grows much larger I worry it will lose some of its intimacy). I’m not sure I’ll make it to Portugal next year, but I suspect I’ll make another appearance at ASSETS some time in the future.

NCWIT 2014

June 4, 2014 Leave a comment
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My daughter constructed one of the “Sit With Me” red chairs that were distributed at the summit–a future computer scientist??

The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year at its annual summit. NCWIT’s goal is to increase women’s participation in computing and technology fields through high-visibility events and activities. This year’s event featured over 600 attendees from universities, colleges, companies of all sizes, government agencies, and other organizations. The NCWIT Summit balances headline events (keynotes, flashtalks, award announcements) with opportunities for focused groupwork. I had a major role with two groups, described in other posts: Pacesetters and the Academic Alliance. We also had a big role in the Sit With Me campaign to get people talking about diversity and inclusion.  I’ll describe the main conference events here.

For me, the most inspirational part of this event was the great collection of keynotes. As always, the organizers did a great job in identifying speakers.  While all the keynotes had value, these three (with links to the talks) are the ones that I found most relevant and interesting:

  • Michael Kimmel, a sociologist from Stony Brook best known to me for his book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, gave a keynote titled Mars and Venus and Planet Earth.  He highlighted ways in which men can become more engaged in gender equality, focusing on the many hurdles to doing so. Too often, men may acknowledge that it’s right and fair to encourage participation by women, but it’s compartmentalized into individual events rather than encouraging of more meaningful changes. Many men don’t acknowledge that differences exist and the benefits of privilege that are constantly present, making it hard to even begin to address issues. To reflect this point, he noted out that ties embody this lack of awareness and its danger: at one end it is a noose and the other points to the genitals.  This is just one of the many amusing analogies and anecdotes he used.
  • Maggie Neale from Stanford gave the opening keynote on influence and negotiation strategies.  She’s talked and written widely on this topic–at this meeting she focused on aspects that relate to issues of diversity.  One issue that she faced hit close to home: she recently faced an increase in her courseload as dictated by administrators who didn’t account for the breadth of value that she brought to the table.  That, and other increases in workload, has been seen at Virginia Tech and a great many other universities in this time of rising enrollment and declining funding, not only for teaching but also for many other professional resources.  She emphasized techniques for addressing these hurdles that I plan to employ in the near future. I agree with Maggie that our leaders generally have reasonable goals in mind when making decisions, but they often don’t fully consider their decisions’ consequences–particularly diversity-related consequences.
  • Chelsea Clinton provided the closing keynote, discussing how her primary interests in global healthcare need partnerships that engage women and technology.  Maybe the biggest cheer came when it was noted she was a newly minted Ph.D. (in international relations from Oxford), to be expected from an academic crowd!  She seemed very knowledgeable about important initiatives that engage women with technology, many of which partner with the Clinton Foundation in some way.  Her talk was good, but even better was the subsequent Q&A session with NCWIT’s Lucy Sanders in which she answered some tough questions–though she didn’t fall for Lucy’s attempt to acknowledge computer science as the most important 21st century skill!

(I’ll also note that Mark Guzdial has a similar list (along with his recap of the summit and his workshop)–I feel like I’m in good company!)

There were many awards that were highlighted at the summit.  The Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award (that I helped to select) went to Bob Beck, Marie desJardins, Silvia Figueira, and Alan Jamieson. This year was the first for the Harrold and Notkin Award for graduate mentoring, won by Nancy Amato. Perhaps most notable was the Pioneer Award this year, to Eleanor Kolchin from IBM and NYU, who worked on early plugboard computers starting in the 1940s.

Another focal point for the summit was a series of workshops to help address key issues regarding women in computing.  The workshops kicked off with a series of 5-minute flashtalks highlighting their respective topics–providing a really interesting view into new directions and concerns regarding women and IT. Alas, the workshops themselves were not as satisfying, perhaps because of the huge number of people in attendance at the workshops of interest to me (standing room only in many, which doesn’t really work well for a highly-interactive workshop format).  Not sure what can be done about that–NCWIT certainly wants more people engaged in these topics, so perhaps encouraging preregistration limits and/or considering different formats for idea exchange will be necessary at future summits.

One other mixed success event from my perspective: Aspirations Award winners were highlighted in several ways but were not as visible as they were at last year’s NCWIT. The Aspirations in Computing program highlights “high potential technically inclined young women”. Virginia Tech has identified and sponsored a half dozen awardees in recent years, with hopes to double that in the next year or so. I’d love to see more ways to highlight their accomplishments at future summits.

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The state of Virginia NCWIT representatives

And I’ve got to end with one other highlight: big thanks to Sharon Simmons, Department Head at James Madison University, for organizing a reception for NCWIT participants from the state of Virginia.  We had attendees at the reception from James Madison, George Mason, Norfolk State, Virginia State, the University of Virginia, Piedmont Virginia CC, NSF, CRA, and (of course) Virginia Tech.  We talked about coordinating some statewide recruiting and retention events, perhaps during computing week.

As always, NCWIT took part in a beautiful environment–Newport Beach, California–with over 600 attendees.  It will require careful thought to manage the continued growth in this event moving forward, but they have great leadership and solid partnership that suggests they will be up for the task.  Looking forward to next year’s NCWIT 2015 Summit in Hilton Head, SC!

NCWIT 2014: Academic Alliance

June 4, 2014 3 comments

The National Center for Women and Information Technology had its annual meeting in May 2014, and a big part of that included meetings of the Academic Alliance members. The Academic Alliance seeks to “implement institutional change in higher education” through a collection of programs. I’ve been on the steering committee for the Academic Alliance for the last two years, and I’ve co-chaired the NCWIT Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award for the last two years as well. There’s some real enthusiasm in this growing group of people, and it’s always been energizing to connect with them.

Undergraduate research has been a passion of mine since my grad school days, and I started our VTURCS undergrad research program upon coming to Virginia Tech. So I suspect it’s no surprise that I find the Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award to be a great way to honor faculty members who make efforts to mentor undergrads in research. I was tagged to help lead the selection committee after winning the inaugural award in 2011, assisted over the years by Margaret Burnett, Morreale, and Maureen Doyle–with invaluable assistance by NCWIT’s Kim Kahaher. There are four categories for the nominees to account for the differing goals of Ph.D. and BS/MS schools, and of senior and junior faculty members. Over the course of a year, we solicited over 30 nominations, arranged at least 3 reviews for each nominee, looked at overall scores and adjusted scores (based on reviewer scoring), delved into the packets ourselves, and–the tough part–chose four winners from among the many great nominees. NCWIT has a great writeup about the four winners: Bob Beck, Marie desJardins, Silvia Figueira, and Alan Jamieson.

There were other important programs and award that were announced at the meeting, including the Pacesetters program (discussed in another blog post), the Sharing Practices Project (working on an interface to share and access early-stage ideas that relate to women in computing), the NCWIT Student Seed Fund, and the inaugural Harrold and Notkin Research and Graduate Mentoring Award (won by Nancy Amato).

Since the Academic Alliance is the biggest sub-group within NCWIT, we divided the core discussion section by type of school–Virginia Tech was part of the Ph.D. in CS/CE group, with other groups focusing on community colleges, 4-year colleges, etc. They also divided questions according to ways that NCWIT and the AA can help me (i.e., faculty and administrators), ways they can help students, and ways we in attendance can help NCWIT and the AA. I’ll link to the full report when it’s released, but to me a few things jumped out as unresolved problems that need to be addressed in moving forward:

  • Resource availability for members. It seemed like lots of concerns resolved around difficulties in finding and accessing information about promising ideas. There’s lots of “Best Practices” information that’s available, and the Sharing Practices Project mentioned previously seems like a step in the right direction. Kudos for the team that’s working on that, as they really want a good product before release. A highly usable interface (searchable in multiple ways) seems essential, as does a well-populated and well-maintained underlying database of ideas. Several of our steering committee meetings have focused on these issues, and I’m hopeful that this is moving in a good direction.
  • More promotion of the awards (and maybe more awards). There was a comment about a lack of transparency in the awards process, which surprised me–but maybe just because I’ve been on the “inside” for a while. I’ve found the process to be very rigorous, with lots of advertising of deadlines early and often, and lots of communication with nominees and reviewers. Deadlines and the timeline for decisions are made available on the award web site as soon as they are known. It’s encouraging that the Harrold and Notkin Award is following a similar process, and I hope that other award categories are identified and funded.
  • My biggest concern connects underrepresentation of women in CS with the current enrollment spike. A great many of the techniques mentioned encourage enrollment in CS, not only among women but also among all students. But with increases in enrollment, there are the dual challenges of not enough time for recruiting events and too many students to effectively teach and mentor. I feel very pinched for time and resources, and diversity issues seem to slide down my priority list.

I’m hopeful that NCWIT, and particularly the Academic Alliance, will seek to be at the forefront in addressing these issues. There’s a great bunch of people who are working hard on these problems, and I look forward to helping however possible in the future.

NCWIT 2014: Pacesetters

June 4, 2014 1 comment

Part of the mission of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) is to maintain a group of Pacesetters who seek to achieve quantified increases in women at their institutions through focused programs of recruitment, retention, and promotion.  Virginia Tech is taking part in their second Pacesetters cohort, and I’ve described our goals previously.  A few highlights from the most recent Pacesetters meeting at the NCWIT Summit in May:

  • We had a “get to know someone new” meeting where I got to chat with Lori Wilson from Intel about things we could do to help each other to achieve Pacesetters goals. Lori has an interesting story–she’s been at Intel since she was a teenager, having them pay for her education as she rises through the ranks. She currently focuses on recruiting and retaining women at Intel. We talked about ways to create a pipeline of students between VT and Intel through internships, researcher visits, sponsored scholarships and awards, and the like.
  • We took part in an activity to make technical job ads to attract a more diverse candidate pool. It seems that all too often job ads ask for skills and experiences that aren’t really required, which disproportionally repels women from from applying. A team of Pacesetters is putting together a packet of materials to help with this–hopefully the group’s participation in the activity will prove helpful in the team’s editing and refinement tasks.
  • We talked as a group about what it means to be a Pacesetter. The group has been dragging a bit in goal reporting, with about a third of the cohort failing to report results. Setting goals that can be measured provides opportunities for reflection, though of course it then takes time and resources to accomplish those goals (and goals can change as situations change, even in as short a time as the two year Pacesetters window). So much of Pacesetters–and of diversity activities more generally–requires dedicated leadership and commitment up the ladder of an organization.

Overall, while it’s great to connect with this enthusiastic group, it may be time for Virginia Tech to take a break from Pacesetters after this current round.  We’re experiencing huge growth in our student population and a rise in both our numbers and percentages of women in our department. Perhaps it’s time to maintain the programs we have that are successful (like the Aspirations Awards), put on a back burner the ones that aren’t suitable right now (our Designer Minors, which don’t fit with our over-enrolled classes), and opportunistically look for other ways to increase diversity. We’ve got one more Pacesetters meeting–I’m looking forward to seeing how our programs continue to have impact.