WASHINGTON, D.C. – April 26, 2010 – Ashley Myers has immersed herself in computers all her life. She started with educational PC games such as Oregon Trail when she was a young girl. By the time she got to middle school, Myers was building her own websites.
When high school graduation loomed, Myers worried about what to major in at college. Her mom had to point out the answer right in front of her.
“I couldn’t decide until my mom said, ‘Ashley, you live on computers – that’s your major. You can do it for the rest of your life,’” she said. “For whatever reason, the thought never occurred to me.”
Today, Myers is a computer science major at DePauw University competing at the U.S. Imagine Cup Finals with the Mango Bunnies, one of two all-female teams at the competition. To this day, she still wonders why someone had to point out that a career in computer science was open to her.
Questions about why more women don’t go into computer science and other technical fields are being asked industry-wide, and with good reason. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), women held only a quarter of IT-related jobs in 2008.
Team Blob members, from left, Lori Rebenitsch, Robyn Krage and Jaelle Scheuerman demo their application that aims to bring emerging multitouch technology into K-12 classrooms. The all-woman team is from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Statistics from high schools and universities suggest that percentage won’t change any time soon. Only 17 percent of Advanced Placement (AP) computer science test-takers in 2008 were women, even though women represented more than half of all AP test-takers. At the college level, fewer than one in five computer and information science degrees were awarded to women.
This failure to attract and retain a diverse talent pool is a serious problem for the IT industry, says Jane Prey, senior research program manager at Microsoft Research (MSR). “There are many places including Microsoft where we need more diversity of thought,” she says.
That’s why there’s an ongoing push by schools, nonprofits, and businesses like Microsoft to get more women into technical fields, says Prey, who is working to develop and implement a plan to increase gender diversity inside and outside the company. “At Microsoft, we’re trying to identify actions and provide thought leadership to help people step up and say ‘yes, we understand the need and its importance to the business and want to know how we can make a change.’”
Businesses and organizations must do more to attract a new generation of women to computing, says John White, chief executive officer of the Association for Computing Machinery. “All these young kids are a generation that has grown up in a completely digital world with the Internet, their mobile devices, and their social networking,” he says. “How do you get young girls who use this stuff all the time to realize that computing could empower them to do the things that they find really interesting?”
Anthony Salcito, vice president of Worldwide Education at Microsoft, says that the Imagine Cup competition helps spread the message that more women are wanted in technical computing roles. “We need to do everything we can to make computing a more diverse field,” Salcito says. “The integration of social responsibility with the Imagine Cup has opened it up to everyone because of this global commitment.”
To that end, the Imagine Cup is a great tool for showing female students that they can use technology to help change the world, says Prey, a captain for the competition’s touch and tablet in accessibility award. “Women are known for wanting to participate in activities that increase the social good,” she says. “We need to figure out how to let girls know how they can use technology to improve lives and highlight the innovation and creativity aspects of computer science.”
Team Blob Helps Girls Break Through
Malisa Vongskul, mentor Erin ‘Ed’ Donahue, and Ashley Myers of team Mango Bunnies at the U.S. Imagine Cup competition held at Microsoft’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. April 23, 2010.
At this year’s U.S. Imagine Cup Finals, Team Blob from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology joined the Mango Bunnies as the second all-woman group to compete in the finals. Their project, a multitouch program that helps teachers create interactive presentations, was designed to help get more young women excited about math and science.
As the team was brainstorming project ideas for the Imagine Cup, they found research that showed girls at the middle school age learn better when they’re working in a collaborative environment, says team member Robyn Krage. So, they leveraged multitouch computing as a way to bring collaborative learning into more classrooms. To demonstrate the Blob Multitouch Designer, the team created an interactive timeline that highlighted history’s famous women in math and science.
At their university’s annual Girls’ Day event, Team Blob showed off their project on a 40-inch multitouch table to more than 200 young girls who visited the campus. “They had never seen anything like that before,” Krage says. “They didn’t realize that computers are more than just what they had seen in their classrooms.” At the end of the presentation, Team Blob passed out a survey that asked if the presentation made the girls interested to learn more about computer science. The overwhelming answer was yes. “One girl even asked us how she could help,” Krage says.
Team Blob’s mentor says getting more women and girls interested in technology and technology careers is an urgent need. South Dakota School of Mines and Technology professor Antonette Logar, who has been in the IT business for 30 years, says a lot of work still remains for women in computer science to reach critical mass. Logar remembers being the only woman in an undergraduate computer science class of a 100 students her so. The professor assumed that she was in the wrong place.
“One half of the global population isn’t participating in solving the world’s problems,” Logar says. “With (Team Blob’s) project, they’re inviting young girls to be a part of math, science, and engineering and helping tell the story that you can help people in computer science.”
Logar says it’s also important to change the image of computer science as a field for “geeks.” Young role models will help, she says, pointing proudly as Team Blob demonstrated their multitouch project for media at the Imagine Cup. “No one is going to describe them as geeks.”
Jackie Shuler, senior manager for university relations at Electronic Arts and one of the judges at the U.S. Imagine Cup Finals, said getting more women into computer science remains an uphill climb. April 24, 2010.
Jackie Shuler, senior manager for university relations at Electronic Arts (EA) and one of the judges at the U.S. finals, agreed that outreach must start when girls are young. As a recruiter for EA, she’s seen firsthand the consequences of a lack of engagement. “When you get to college, there’s a set group of women in computer science and technology,” she said. “At a lot of schools, you can usually count them on one hand. If women aren’t exposed to technology when they’re young, they’re not going to be excited about it and enter the field.”
The Mango Bunnies also stressed the importance of getting young girls excited about technology.
“There’s a lot of research that points to a big shift that happens in grade school,” said Malisa Vongskul, a student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “All of a sudden, girls think, ‘Computers are cool, but they’re not for me.’ We need to tell young girls that this is something they can do. To this day, women are coming out of school thinking that they can’t do it, even though they’re perfectly capable.”