Computing Profession

A Successful NY Celebration of Women in Computing!

Valerie Barr
Valerie Barr, Professor of Computer Science, Union College

The first NY regional Women in Computing conference (NYCWiC) was, by all accounts, fabulous! The conference was attended by 84 students, 32 faculty members, and eight industry representatives (not counting our wonderful invited participants). We also had nine companies and government agencies recruiting at the career fair. For a first venture, we could not be more pleased.

The buzz was palpable on Friday afternoon as students checked in and then gathered at the poster session. One of my co-organizers came to me at the registration table and said "it's really happening! They are all in there looking at the posters and talking with each other." During dinner we had a wonderful talk by A.J. Brush (Microsoft Research) about "Everyday Technology for Families." One student commented "I loved just talking to other female CS majors about their goals and why they chose to major in CS . . . . My favorite talk was A.J. Brush's talk about her research. I thought she gave a great presentation and got me interested in her work. It's something that I had never considered before, or even knew was available. Hearing her and other women talk about their experiences opened my eyes and got me excited about going into a technical career."

Dinner was followed by several BOFs. I participated in a fireside chat with Fran Berman (VP Research, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). As always, Fran was generous with her time and forthcoming about her experiences. She started out by having the students introduce themselves and talk about what they were studying, and then answered all their questions. We then ended the evening by having the students make Brushbots — supplied with paint and card stock, they were able to set the Brushbots loose in some very creative ways!

Saturday started out with a breakfast talk by Julie Adams (Vanderbilt University) on "Human-robot Interaction for the Untrained Human User." This was followed by a session by Joanne Cohoon (University of Virginia/National Center for Women & IT) on recruiting women into the CS major, as well as parallel sessions on graduate school and on industry careers. In the graduate school session students learned the do's and don'ts of applying to graduate schools. Faculty members and students talked honestly and openly about some of the highs and lows of their own graduate experiences. A faculty member who attended Joanne Cohoon's session commented afterward, "[We] came away thinking more critically about how we can improve our commitment to recruiting women to computing. I found the session with Joanne Cohoon particularly helpful in this regard and would recommend additional interactive workshops on this issue in a future meeting. (We've already begun revising our tracking information to include gender. As a percentage of finishing seniors our numbers are in the 30-40% range, but I see a disconnect with the numbers we see in our courses.)"

Next up: lightning talks, a session on networking and security, and one on encouragement and retention at both the undergraduate and PhD level. There were six lightning talks by undergraduate and graduate students from Marist, SUNY Albany and SUNY Oswego. They presented great topics in the medical field, enterprise resource planning, social networking and mobile platforms, and each managed to cover their background and research in just six minutes each!

Lunch featured a talk by Carolyn Strobel (Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology) on how to get the most out of networking — the human to human kind, not the computer to computer kind. Then we had two parallel sessions. One featured work that was done by students during summer REU projects or internships. The second featured work that combined CS with various other disciplines: statistical analysis and comparison of ancient Greek texts, research examining what neuroscience has learned about the information people discern from looking at faces (in hopes that we will be able to get computers to assess faces equally well), and a project that examined the image in popular films of both computer science and technical women (as a potential contributing factor to low enrollments of women in CS).

The conference wrapped up with a Career Fair. Informal conversations later with some of the exhibitors indicated that they were very impressed by the young women with whom they spoke. Some people held up resumes they had been given and went on at length about how well qualified the students were! Clearly students had taken our advice about bringing resumes, and they had an "elevator speech" prepared in order to quickly market themselves.

Many people — students, faculty members, career fair exhibitors — paid us compliments during the conference. And since then I have received several emails of thanks as well as offers to join the organizing committee for NYCWiC 2013. I think one faculty member summed it up best when she approached our little group of organizers at one point and said "I'm sure you have plenty that you are worrying about, but in there," pointing to the main room where everyone was gathered, "it is wonderful." We owe a debt of thanks to all our sponsors, and to the faculty from well over a dozen NY schools who brought their students to the conference!

Finally, a shout out to my fellow conference organizers, Jennifer Goodall (SUNY Albany), Mary Anne Egan (Siena College), and Sharon Mason (Rochester Institute of Technology).  You all are a fabulous group with which to work!

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