Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

Inspiring Computer Science Students in Our Backyard

Inspiring Computer Science Students in Our Backyard

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Students from Kent Technology Academies enjoy a day of computing innovations at Microsoft Research.

As Microsoft’s “point person” for increasing women’s participation in computing, I am passionate about attracting talented young women to careers in computer science. Perhaps you’ve seen these statistics, which underscore the need:

  • The percentage of computer science graduates who are women has declined from 37 percent in 1985 to 18 percent in 2009. (Source: http://www.ncwit.org/scorecard)
  • High school girls comprise 56 percent of Advanced Placement (AP) test-takers across all subjects, but only 19 percent of AP computer science test-takers. (Source: The College Board, AP National Summaries, 1999–2009)
  • By 2018, there will be nearly 1.4 million computing jobs in the United States, but at the current graduation rates, only 29 percent of those jobs could be filled by American graduates. (Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment by detailed occupation, 2008 and projected 2018.)

We know that young women want meaningful careers—vocations that make a social and economic impact—and I believe they understand how deeply technology influences our modern lives. However, many may not recognize how careers in computer science can advance societal improvements. We think it is important that they realize that computer scientists support and develop tools, services, and devices that can change the world for the better—and also that they understand the necessity of taking advanced science and math courses to prepare them to help change the world as a computer scientist. 
 
Fortunately, there are organizations, companies, and universities throughout the United States implementing programs to interest the next generation in computing careers. My Microsoft colleagues and I have had the opportunity to participate in some of the great programs here in the Puget Sound (Washington) region. Here’s a quick overview of three of these programs that expose young women to the potential of careers in computing.
 
A Word to the WiSE
The 2012 WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering) Conference, for which Microsoft Research was both a participant and a sponsor, took place on February 25 at the University of Washington. Cathyrne Jordan, the director of WiSE at the University of Washington, and her team brought together women from industry, universities, community colleges, and high schools throughout the Pacific Northwest for a day of exploration, discovery, and empowerment. The event was the twenty-first annual WiSE conference, and like its 20 predecessors, it encouraged female students to continue their studies in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects and worked to build the attendees’ self-confidence, ease their transition from school to work, and provide greater awareness of career opportunities in engineering and science. Inspirational keynote presentations were followed by industry-related workshops, a resource fair, soft-skill training sessions, and preparation for graduate school. Professional engineers and scientists facilitated workshops where students could learn about opportunities in specific fields and receive valuable mentoring. I had the opportunity to speak with all the high school students attending WiSE who are part of the Making Connections Program and answer their questions about computer science’s role in solving world problems. It was exciting to see how the event changed the young women’s perceptions of STEM subjects and to witness their enthusiasm about preparing for computer science studies in college.

Getting Witty at NCWIT Competitions
The National Center for Women & Information Technology, better known as NCWIT, is a nonprofit coalition that works to increase diversity in IT and computing. An important component of this effort is the national and regional affiliate competitions for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing. These competitions honor young women at the high school level for their computing-related achievements and interests. Awardees are selected for their computing and IT aptitude, leadership ability, academic history, and plans for post-secondary education. This year, NCWIT will host 31 award events, recognizing 624 young women across the country, and Microsoft Research is excited to sponsor all the affiliate regional events.

Last Saturday, several of my colleagues participated in the Washington regional event, which honored 20 Aspiration Award winners in Washington State. We were pleased to partner with Ed Lazowska of the University of Washington in support of girls’ interest in computer science and to have Microsoft’s own Cheryl Platz discuss the role of computing in the Puget Sound region. In addition, Microsoft researchers joined representatives from Google and HTC in a panel discussion of careers in computing. The young women viewed demos and heard from university computer science students about the work they do in school. The enthusiasm generated is apparent in these quotes from young women who attended the event:

  • “Because of this award, I am less shy with my passion. Now I enjoy showing off my computing talents and sharing them with others.”
  • “This event made me feel amazing. It made me want to do even more with computing.”
  • “This award has inspired me to further my education in computer science.”

I am pleased to have the opportunity to be the keynote speaker for the Northwest Regional Women in Computing Celebration 2012 on April 14 in Portland, Oregon. Watch for a future blog I will write about this experience after the event.
 
Kent Get Enough of this Program
Lastly, I want to update you on a program I blogged about a few months ago: our partnership with the Kent Technology Academies, where we are working to generate enthusiasm among Kent students—both female and male—for careers in STEM. We initiated the partnership the Friday before the beginning of Computer Science Education Week in December 2011 with a day-long event that was designed to reach every seventh- through twelfth-grader at Kent’s two tech academy campuses. Our primary goal was to help students understand that computer science can help solve many of the most difficult problems in the world and to excite them about the interesting career opportunities in STEM. On March 22, 2012, we hosted all the seventh- and ninth-grade students at Microsoft Research headquarters to show them computer science in action and encourage them to attend more advanced science and math courses next year. The students heard from a panel of Microsoft Research leaders, including Peter Lee, Tony Hey, and Lili Cheng. Then they had the opportunity to engage in hands-on research demonstrations and to join the Epiphyte Research Project led by Donald Brinkman.

Kent students learn about the potential of natural user interfaces.

Here are a few of the comments from the Kent students:

  • “Today was fabulous. It blew my mind what you can do in computer science!”
  • “I thought programming was boring, but to make cool things like you showed, I can’t wait to learn more!”
  • “I am so going to take more advanced math and science classes in high school now!”

    And my favorite:
  • “I want to be a computer scientist now!”

These three programs help inspire the next generation to change the world through computer science. Seeing participants’ enthusiasm, their increased confidence, and their passion to learn more, I know we’re headed in the right direction. I’m confident that by working with universities and organizations like those described above, we will make notable progress. In the coming years, I look forward to seeing the number of female computer science graduates surpass those of 1985. Visit this blog again in late April to read about more programs and organizations working with Microsoft Research to inspire women to pursue careers in computing.

Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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  • I work in IT and have seen many women/girls excel in this field. Some of them are even better than boys/men working in this field.

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