Organization works to find ways to attract and retain women in STEM fields

Lauren Ingram
September 08, 2015

Until the day Brigid Smith, a spunky 16-year-old, tagged along with her boyfriend to a meeting of their high school’s computer club, she had always planned on being a marine biologist. But Smith, who is now a Penn State alumna, had an almost instantaneous change of heart during that first after-school meeting.

“At the time, I thought I had no interest in computers or programming, but I was wrong. They showed us how to disassemble a computer, and I just got hooked immediately, out of nowhere,” Smith said. “I went home that evening and literally took my computer apart for fun.”

After gutting her many-years-old desktop on her bedroom floor that night (without telling her parents), Smith then taught herself how to put the computer back together. She worked throughout the rest of high school on building a new computer from parts, eventually enrolling in Penn State’s College of Engineering and interning at Google, Xerox and Amazon.

After graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and engineering in spring 2015, Smith recently began her first job developing software for Amazon’s hyped (yet highly under wraps) Prime Air project, which aims to use drones to deliver packages to consumers’ doorsteps in 30 minutes or less.

“Until I was actually recruited to the team I couldn’t believe Prime Air was real. I’m so happy I discovered my interest in computing — this is a once-in-a-lifetime job,” Smith said. Though she says she feels lucky to have been exposed to programming in high school, she recognizes that not all women have similar entrance experiences.

“I don’t think there should be more women in computing just for the sake of there being more women in computing — it should be based on interest and choice,” she added. “That said, I believe there are girls and women, like me in high school, who might not know they’d be interested in these subjects, and that’s an issue.”

In spite of a range of education and research initiatives designed to foster gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, women still experience early bias, social expectations and discrimination that divert them from the STEM pipeline before they reach college, according to a study done by U.S News and World Report. And according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, in 2013 only 18 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees were earned by women.

At Penn State, the Association of Women in Computing — a student organization founded by three students in 2011 — is striving to reduce such barriers by building a community of women at the University who are studying and/or interested in computing and engineering.

“It can be hard to eliminate the feeling of being different when you’re in the minority, so it’s nice to connect with other people who are having similar experiences as you,” said Diana Zhang, president of the Association of Women in Computing. “By creating opportunities for women to ask questions in a safe space, make friends, and network and learn about their majors, we hope to attract and retain students in computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering majors.”

Each school year, the association — made up of about 100 members — organizes such events as programming competitions, peer tutoring sessions, and résumé and salary negotiation workshops with such companies as Facebook and IBM. A group of them also attend the yearly Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (among her many achievements, the computer scientist popularized the term “debugging” by pulling a moth from a computer) to attend seminars, network and meet recruiters at a technology career fair.

“There are such incredible opportunities in this field, and we’re not trying to weed anyone out because there are a tremendous amount of jobs,” said John Hannan, interim associate head of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “My goal is to make sure every student has every opportunity available to them. Penn State attracts great students and helps them do amazing things. That’s why the Association of Women in Computing is so important.”

For Molly Basile, a junior majoring in computer science and French and Francophone studies, being part of the association helped her gain the confidence to join THON — not as a dancer, but a coder.

Last year, as one of two Drupal content management system developers, Basile helped manage and the online THON Store.

“Pretty much every committee involved with THON has website needs, so I got to meet a lot of people and learn firsthand how much of an impact technology can have on charitable organizations — about 500,00 people visited the website during THON weekend alone,” Basile said. “I had never used Drupal before so there was a bit of a learning curve, but I got the hang of it and got the chance to do some really creative work that I’m proud of.”

Programming classes weren’t offered at Basile’s high school, so she didn’t discover her love for the craft until her first year at Penn State. Like Smith’s experience, it was a happy accident.

Basile followed the advice of her adviser and enrolled in an introductory computer science class — and loved it. She says joining the Association of Women in Computing cemented her decision to become a computer scientist and also helped her meet friends, set career goals, and navigate classes and internships.

Hannan, who’s taught at Penn State for 23 years, is happy to be teaching and advising more women than ever. For the first time this fall, about one-third of the students in his 400-level app programming class and nearly half of his honor-student advisees are women.

“In some ways, I believe people have an image of our field as coding alone in a dark room, which isn’t the case,” Hannan said. “It can be very collaborative and creative work that involves problem solving and overcoming obstacles for some very cutting-edge projects.”

That’s certainly true for Smith, who while focusing on software development at Amazon is also getting the chance to learn about drones and aerodynamics. She credits her education at Penn State for helping to prepare her for the complexities of her new job.

“I feel like I got a great education at Penn State and had the opportunity to take a lot of interesting classes. I’ve been able to take that breadth of knowledge with me to Amazon, where I’m continuing to grow,” she said. “The culture at Amazon is very dynamic and there’s also a very strong sense of community among my team. The whole experience has been exciting — this certainly isn’t your average software job.”

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  • Diana Zhang and Molly Basile at an Association of Women in Computing meeting.

    Diana Zhang and Molly Basile at an Association of Women in Computing meeting.

    IMAGE: Angela Card
  • Association of Women in Computing members at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 2014.

    Association of Women in Computing members at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 2014.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Diana Zhang
  • Association of Women in Computing members sitting outside

    The club creates opportunities for women to ask questions, make friends, network and learn about their majors.

    IMAGE: Angela Card
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Last Updated September 08, 2015