In recognition of their progress and continuing commitment to increase the participation of women in STEM education and careers, Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science has been honored with a 2016 National Center for Women and Information Technology Extension Services Transformation (NCWIT NEXT) award.  The ceremony will take place the NCWIT Summit on May 17 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

“We are currently engaged in a visioning initiative to guide the university into the future, considering how we will prepare our students to solve complex problems, address global issues, and live and work in an increasingly diverse and interdependent world,” said Tim Sands, president of Virginia Tech, in his nomination of the team. “Increasing the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields such as computer science will be critical to meeting those challenges.”

The collaborative Virginia Tech computer science team tied for second place with University of Texas at Austin and includes members: Libby Bradford, director of undergraduate studies; Greg Farris, academic and career advisor; Scott McCrickard, associate professor; and Barbara Ryder, professor of computer science; and Cathy Brawner, extension services consultant.

Funded by Google, the award program commends past and present extension services for undergraduate programs for excellence in recruiting and retaining women in computing as having the most significant impact on the long-term goal of increasing the number of women in information technology and other computing-related fields.

“We are committed to diversify our student body and faculty,” said Ryder, the J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering. “By partnering with NCWIT in various recruiting and retention activities with sister computer science departments across the country and concerned information technology industry representatives, we have been able to achieve progress towards our goal."

Under Ryder’s leadership as computer science department head from 2008 until 2015, the department increased the percentage of female majors from 4 percent in 2007 to almost 17 percent in 2015 and doubled the 2-year average percentage of female graduates since 2011 from 5 percent to 10 percent  In addition, the faculty has diversified from 10 percent female tenure-track professors to 21 percent.

In November 2009, the program began working with Brawner, who assisted in formulation of goals and metrics for recruitment of female computer science students and became an inaugural member of NCWIT Pacesetters.

Partnerships were formed three years later with the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity to participate in the NCWIT Expanding the Pool grant to support joint recruiting of female students by both departments.  Bradford, Leslie Pendleton, electrical and computer engineering director of student services, and Susan Arnold-Christian, associate director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, led the program to broaden institutional participation at Virginia Tech in order to recruit more women in computing disciplines.

As part of their 2015 strategic plan, the department remains committed to addressing issues of diversity in faculty and student body. Through their proactive efforts in strengthening retention practices, especially for female students given the propensity for attrition seen elsewhere, they achieved comparable retention rates for males at 94 percent and females at 93.5 percent. The program seeks to expand with aggressive and realistic goals over the next three years in the following ways:

  • to strengthen student women’s groups;
  • to support student travel to diversity in computing conferences;
  • to promote student self-efficacy through curriculum/pedagogy changes;
  • and to build a sense of community among female computing students.

Research confirms that self-efficacy of underrepresented groups in computing can be encouraged through experiences in key areas including the opportunity to watch, interact, and learn from viable role models in the field.

Allison Collier of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Kara Vaillancourt of Hamilton, Virginia; both juniors in computer science with minors in meteorology and mathematics respectively; are student ambassadors for computer science and attend STEM events throughout the state of Virginia in anticipation of engaging potential students to stimulate pursuit of a computer science education.

“Being a part of the department is truly inclusive,” said Vaillancourt. “Last year I spoke 200 high schools students in northern Virginia about studying computer science at Virginia Tech and the positive impact it has had on my life. I also attended an exciting outreach event called Women in Computing Day, put on by the Association for Women in Computing chapter at Virginia Tech, which encourages middle school girls to get involved with technology.”

Vaillancourt and Collier each won a National Award for Aspirations in Computing in 2013. As stated by NCWIT, “Award recipients are selected based on their aptitude and aspirations in technology and computing; leadership ability; academic history; and plans for post-secondary education.”  

Future plans for the computer science department to expand inclusivity include increasing interaction between their alumni and enrolled students, forming more alliances across the College of Engineering to include the Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, and widening their focus to target recruitment of minority students as well as increased percentages of women.

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