March 31, 2016

Energized by Grant, U of M Chapter of ACM-W Plans to Grow

ACM-W Welcome DinnerThe University of Minnesota chapter of Association for Computing Machinery for Women (ACM-W) has been awarded a $5,000 grant from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). The grant has been used to establish a successful mentorship program, sponsor weekly study sessions, and host community-building and informational gatherings.

ACM-W’s new student officers, President Thanh Mai Phan and Web Master Shannyn Telander, have taken on a large share of the group’s responsibilities this semester.  Despite the extra work they do on top of their studies, they passionately pursue ACM-W’s goal of helping support and bring women into the tech field.

“It’s important that everyone has the opportunity to contribute,” said Phan.  “If our professional goal is to make technology that everybody uses, the field can’t be dominated by one particular group of people.”

ACM-W does face significant challenges in promoting retention of women in computer technology.  The industry is largely dominated by men, which makes it less welcoming for young women looking to pursue a degree or career in computer science.

“Here at the U, it’s about 14% women and 86% men for undergrads,” said Telander. “I joined ACM-W hoping to become friends with more women in the major because it can be kind of intimidating when you look at the gender gap.”

This is why the grant has been so beneficial.  It has given ACM-W the means to face these challenges.

“The grant has helped the ACM-W support women in the department so they don’t feel isolated,” said faculty advisor Amy Larson.  “We want to provide an arena where members feel academically supported. We also want to foster a network of women that can share their unique experiences with one another.”

One way the group supports women in computer science is by setting up a mentorship program comprised of students, industry professionals, and faculty. Each student is paired with an industry professional or faculty member within the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CS&E) and another student that is further along in the Computer Science program.

“Our mentoring groups are small, but they’re meant to be small,” said Larson.  “It gives our members a chance to get academic advice, professional guidance, and participate in periodic check-ins throughout the semester. ”

Beyond mitigating the gap, many issues women in technology face are more nuanced. Because of this, most ACM-W activities are geared toward providing a space where women can develop ideas surrounding these issues.

“It’s been really reaffirming to know that others have similar stories,” said Phan.  “Talking with other women has helped me think critically about the challenges we face and what can be done about it.”

One of the larger events the ACM-W will be hosting is “Girls + Code,” taking place in CSE Labs in Mechanical Engineering on April 16. Girls + Code brings young women from area middle schools and high schools to the U of M to learn CS fundamentals.  Historically, the program was a hands-on workshop that revolved around robots, but it has since expanded to become a vibrant, day-long event that involves an information luncheon with CS&E graduate students and an afternoon industry talk with Best Buy. The purpose is to promote ACM-W’s goals within the broader community.

“Girls + Code reaches young women who likely have no experience programming and don't know that computer science is an option for them,” said staff advisor for the ACM-W, Kelly Thomas. “The young women will be introduced to the basics of programming in a fun and collaborative environment, while also being introduced to women who are pursuing or already working in computer science.”

Prof. Yarosh at ACM-W Dinner, 2016At the University, ACM-W worked in a supportive role with the NCWIT and Professor Maria Gini to put together their first-ever undergraduate Women in Computer Science Dinner that took place in McNamara Alumni Center.  Over 70 attendees joined the dinner, which included a captivating presentation from Professor Lana Yarosh, as well as focus group discussions afterwards for current members to meet prospective members.

“It went really well,” said Telander.  “I met many women I didn’t know and it was cool to have a discussion guided by graduate students.”

In addition to these more formal initiatives, the group has also been organizing and participating in a number of community-building and informational gatherings.  They were part of a large documentary-screening put together by Women Who Code that attracted over 150 women from all parts of the Twin Cities technology community.  Before that, ACM-W co-hosted a pizza party and screening of the movie Hackers with ACM. 

Under its new leadership, ACM-W is doing what it can to let the university know who they are and what they plan to do.  To organize and plan events, ACM-W holds a weekly officers meeting, open to everyone, on Wednesdays at 3:30 in the lower level of the Keller Hall Atrium. This is followed by a study session from 4:30pm - 6:00pm. For each session, the CS&E Department provides two teaching assistants knowledgeable of coursework from the introductory Computer Science courses. There is food, conversation, and it is open to all students.

“We want the student body to know that ACM-W exists and more importantly, why ACM-W exists,” said Phan.  “Anyone who supports our mission is welcome to our events and meetings to find out more about us.”

ACM-W is actively seeking members.  Visit their website for more information about what they have planned for the rest of the semester.  To see the accomplishments of women in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at all levels, from undergraduate to graduate students and faculty, please view our “Women in Computer Science” video below.