Mentoring Matters: W&M Society of Women in Computing Wins ACM Award for Outstanding Community Service

Through April 2023, women made up just over a quarter of the U.S. workforce in computer and math occupations. Research has shown that gender stereotypes about interests emerge early and can help perpetuate existing gender imbalances in the industry, leaving much untapped potential.

The W&M Society of Women in Computing aims to challenge this and is winning international awards in the process. In recognition of mentoring middle school girls, the club was recently awarded an ACM Student Chapter Excellence Award for outstanding community service from the Association for Computing Machinery.

The William & Mary SWC, which is one of more than 680 ACM student chapters worldwide, has already earned three ACM awards in just five years.

I am incredibly proud of SWC’s achievements and this award! Three times in the last five years is an incredible honor, said Evgenia Smirni, the Sidney P. Chockley Professor and chair of the computer science department. Compared to the other four student chapters that were also awarded for excellence in other categories this year, they are all from large state schools with very large computer science departments. Computing at William & Mary may be small but it sure is powerful.

Since 2018, the SWC has been mentoring the girls robotics club at Berkeley Middle School in Williamsburg; over the years, the program has seen a growth in participants, especially students from low-income families. This year’s sponsorship by Cisco and Northrop Grumman has enabled SWC to enhance the curriculum and plan to expand this activity to other middle schools in the Williamsburg/James City County area.

Among other initiatives, the SWC also hosts panels with women in technology roles at large companies and technical interview seminars, addressing a key part of IT interviews that require candidates to code on the spot.

In promoting data fluency, SWC activities align with the goals of the data cornerstone initiative in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan.

Why start in middle school?

Female participation in computer science at the graduate level peaked in 1984, when women accounted for 37 percent of all computer science graduates in the United States, and began to decline steadily thereafter.

Despite a change in trend in recent years, national data remains lower than 40 years ago: in 2021 only 22% of computer science degrees went to women. That same year, William & Mary’s figure was higher than the national average at 26%; in 2022-23, 31% of William & Mary students reporting a computer science major were female.

A report by Accenture and Girls Who Code identified middle school as a pivotal time for promoting girls’ participation in computer science, with the ultimate goal of tripling the number of women in computer science nationwide. This is why the SWC has chosen to focus on this demographic.

It’s important to create something girls can enjoy, said outgoing SWC president Aashni Manroa 24. It’s easy to accidentally create a lesson that’s too complex.

Lines of code from a SWC Powerpoint presentation on setting up a micro:bit activity.
Setting up a micro:bit task, from a SWC PowerPoint presentation. (Image courtesy.)

Manroa herself started coding in middle school and still remembers her happiness getting her program working for the first time, but she also remembers how frustrating mistakes could be at that age.

Helping the girls understand computer science and robotics concepts and learning alongside them as we updated the program was incredibly rewarding, said Kaitlyn Wilson 23, who served as president of outreach and mentorship program leader for the past year.

Translating technical concepts to non-technical people has been an important skill I’ve acquired, agreed incoming president Lydia Cheng 24. This was something very new to me as we usually don’t have the opportunity to learn something like this.

Following the recommendation of Accenture reports, the William & Mary SWC tailored lessons to girls’ specific interests to support their commitment to computer science. 3D printing, button making and laser cutting were popular activities, undertaken in collaboration with Tonia Eriksen, the school library media specialist.

Many of the activities involved the use of a micro:bit, a pocket printed circuit board designed to help young students code.

We also focused on electrical engineering with breadboard circuits and had a lecture on cybersecurity and online safety, which is very important nowadays with social media, Manroa said.

Hands of people in robotics club while assembling the waving robot.
Assemble the waving robot. (Courtesy photo.)

And when we introduced the waving robot, the girls were excited because they knew it would be more interactive, Cheng added, referring to a print and assembly robot powered by a servo motor and controlled by a micro:bit.

The use of robots was a full-circle moment for Cheng, whose interest in computer science was sparked in high school as he watched robotics club members race their robots at lunchtime.

I was so intrigued because I didn’t know you could just write a few lines of code and make it go, zip down the hall, turn around and go back, he said. I didn’t know it was only possible with computers. I always thought you needed a controller.

Cheng, like the other volunteers, found it very important to be able to make a difference for middle school girls.

When I was their age, I didn’t have an asset like this, and it was very difficult as a girl to try to break into the tech industry, she said. It’s nice to know that we can be a role model for them in some way.

The middle school students consistently impressed me with their intelligence and technical skills and challenged me to find the perfect middle ground between keeping them engaged and not overwhelming them intellectually, Wilson added.

Beyond the current gender imbalance

Information technology has not always been codified as a typically male interest. The 19thCentury British mathematician Ada Lovelace is widely considered to be the first computer programmer. Women were among the field’s first innovators even before the first US computer science department was established in the early 1960s and were once touted as naturals at computer programming.

Lydia Cheng '24
Lydia Cheng ’24, incoming SWC president. (Courtesy photo.)

Several factors have been considered to explain the current imbalance, including gender representations of computer scientists popularized in the media or masculine characteristics that reward characteristics generally associated with men.

Cheng ended up never joining the robotics club in high school. There was nothing specific that she said girls couldn’t be there, she said. But I felt like I didn’t fit. Fast forward a few years, she is a dual major in computer science and psychology while she holds a leadership position in the SWC.

Are things really getting better? Manroa recounted the experience shared by a group of senior female academics in computer science and data science.

When they started, there were maybe one or two women in the class and they had to really fight for their positions, she said. They commented on how they can see improvement over the last few years and how they have taught so many more women and non-binary people.

And now, the girls in the robotics club don’t perceive themselves as unable to code, Manroa said. Building on the success of the program, Cheng said she wants to support plans to reach out to other schools in the area and hopefully impact the lives of more girls.

Computer science is a wonderful field with many opportunities, Manroa said. It’s perceived as very cut and dry, but it can be as creative as you want it to be.

Antonella DiMarzio, Senior Research Writer

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