By Benjamin Weiner
For The Diamondback
The Maryland Center for Women in Computing held its inaugural Diversity in Computing Summit Monday, part of an effort to increase gender parity and racial balance in the computer science field.
The three-year-old initiative, which started out working to increase the number of women in computing, “aims to increase all diversity in the field, especially with operating in Prince George’s County, which is a majority minority county,” said the program’s director Jan Plane.
Ruthe Farmer, a senior policy advisor for Tech Inclusion at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, spoke at the summit and advised university faculty to recognize their role in shaping the field’s future.
“You have the opportunity to look at all the students in your courses and encourage the few standout minds to keep pushing and working toward the job of their dream,” Farmer said. “You are the biggest player in deciding our future workforce.”
In addition to speakers, the one-day workshop featured breakout sessions to discuss the issue, including “Mentoring for Diversity” and “Surviving and Thriving in an All-Male Workplace.”
Farmer said a short-term solution for getting rid of the unbalanced computer science workforce is to evaluate the admissions process and remove biases there.
She also said it was important to talk with the local community’s industry and corporate partners to figure out what they are looking for to align the university’s values regarding prospective students with those of their future employers.
“We can’t ask hungry people to solve hunger; we need to look further out than just women to solve the discrepancy in the workforce,” Farmer said.
Chris Stephenson, the head of Computer Science Education Programs at Google, also spoke at the summit and discussed the various programs Google is involved with aimed at furthering computer science education for children.
“We don’t want children to be passive consumers of technology,” Stephenson said. “We want children to learn to be the creators and innovators of our future, and that starts now.”
Stephenson stressed the importance of Google’s CS First clubs, which are designed to inspire kids to create through free computer science clubs.
“We expect Google’s CS First clubs to hit one million students by 2018,” Stephenson said. “And we’re not only seeing this success in the United States, we have begun rolling out these clubs around the world, and are seeing the same results.”
Last summer, the center hosted 11 camp activities for students and teachers with the hopes of diversifying the field, Plane said.
The center’s signature program is a three-year summer camp called CompSciConnect, where students learn basic virtual reality, Scratch, dynamic web pages and how to program robots.
Almost all the participants in the summer program are from communities that are typically underrepresented in the field, Plane said.
“The benefits of the camp is that we can get kids to go through the process of learning an easy computer language and then gradually increase the difficulty, while also showing them the breadth of computing like cybersecurity, cybersafety and applications of computing,” Plane said.
Getting people from underrepresented populations interested in computing is necessary to have “true diversity,” she added.
“Our ultimate goal is to have gender parity and racial balance across computing,” Plane said, “and the more we can get students educated and support the ones already in the field, each one of these little pieces can contribute to the overall goal.”