Computer Science

Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators

Ruthe Farmer is Chief Evangelist at CSforALL

Ruthe Farmer is Chief Evangelist at CSforALL

“This girl gang of tech women will revolutionize the tech industry from the inside out.”

Ruther Farmer’s proudest accomplishment is launching Aspirations in Computing, a talent development program for young women that identifies participants in high school and then supports them through college graduation.

“That community now numbers more than 12,000 girls, and I continue to have a relationship with them. And now I’m in a position where not only am I helping to shine a light on them and put them in front of people and opportunities, but they are doing that for each other.”

She looks forward to the day when truly diverse teams build technology, because “we’re going to solve a much broader set of problems.”

“People tend to address things that are relevant to them; you’re going to innovate to solve problems that others like you are having, and dismiss other things as ‘less relevant.’ That’s why we haven’t seen as much innovation in women’s health, things like bras and breast pumps and menstruation tools.”

She is also optimistic about the ways increased female participation in STEM fields will impact organizational cultures.

“Having watched now 12,000 girls progress through high school and college and into the workforce, the way that they interact with each other is really inspiring. I’ve seen young women help each other on applications for a scholarship they’re all competing for. It’s ‘coopetition’ — cooperation and competition.”

Ruthe advises young women that not every decision is make-or-break: “I see young women getting really caught up in ‘oh, I have to get the right internship’ or ‘the right college,’ but you’re going to have many opportunities to make choices that will have an impact on your life. Take it in stride and keep moving.” She also cautions against comparing yourself to wunderkinds:

“In our society there can be this obsession with exceptionalism, and it sets people up to feel like they’re failing when they’re actually doing really well. You don’t have to be better than everyone else to be OK.”


AnitaB-org_logo_RGB.jpg

Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase inspiring and diverse women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.

Teaching Teachers: How Harvey Mudd professor Colleen Lewis shares CS teaching tips for inclusivity with educators around the world

Colleen Lewis ● McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science ● Harvey Mudd College

Colleen Lewis ● McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science ● Harvey Mudd College

Colleen Lewis’s career in STEM began as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, when she met a charismatic friend in a physics class.

“She was going to be a computer science major. We started studying together, and she said to me, ‘Colleen, next semester I’m taking this CS class, take it with me? I said no that’s only for smart people, obviously not for me.’ But she is the most stubborn person that I know, so she got me into it kicking and screaming. I ended up loving the content of that first semester.”

The next semester Colleen decided to take another computer science class, without this friend and with decidedly less stellar results. She had to drop the class to avoid failing the class, and when she took it the next semester, she got 5/25 on her first exam.

“At that point, my friends might have thought, ‘maybe you’re not cut out for this.’ But later I did my PhD at Berkeley and taught that data structures class three times. Things can take time to learn, and that’s okay. We have to be really careful about the advice we give ourselves and our friends — even in cases like mine where it seemed that CS obviously wasn’t for me.”

As the McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College, Colleen’s memories of her early experiences as a beginner in CS help inform her current work on CS education and reducing bias. Her project CSTeachingTips.org is a resource for educators at all levels who teach computer science hoping to create inclusive learning environments.

“Some tips for department inclusivity would be to listen to students, design an intro course that is welcoming regardless of students’ level of prior CS exposure, and to monitor performance patterns, looking for canaries in the coal mine.”

The CS Teaching Tips website includes printable tip sheets on subjects like encouraging help seeking, pair programming, lecturing, and more, with videos and example language by every tip to help guide educators. The tip sheet on department inclusivity reads,

“Have experienced and effective educators teach the introductory courses. This can lead to students finding the department welcoming and supportive. To address differences in preparation, you can encourage students with prior CS experience to skip the first course or offering multiple introductory courses. In addition to providing curriculum customized to their level of experience, students might be less intimidated if everyone in the classroom shares their background.”

For many educators who are committed to prioritizing diversity but unsure of exactly how to make that a reality, the website provides concrete and actionable steps that can be implemented right away.

At some schools, the tips are already visible in action. Colleen is proud of the way Harvey Mudd has fostered student community, showed students the breadth of CS as a discipline, optimized the introductory course, and encouraged students to seek help. She says that about half of her students and faculty colleagues identify as women. This is important for creating a diverse community and set of role models. She also speaks about how recognizing sexism must go part and parcel with recognizing interlinked forms of oppression.

“I think it’s important that computer scientists understand how the world works, including systems of oppression like sexism and racism. As a white woman, I think it is my responsibility to push back against the tendency for some ‘diversity and inclusion’ efforts to focus exclusively on White women. There is a tendency to treat white women as the norm and forget that sexism and racism are deeply interconnected.”

Her advice for young women who might want to follow in her footsteps comes from her time slogging through that first data structures class in Berkeley.

“Debug the process. The first time I took data structures, it didn’t go well. I would go to the lab, but wouldn’t know what to do, and I wouldn’t ask for help. Turns out that’s not a great way to learn. A lot of it was pushing through the anxiety of not knowing.”

Ultimately, Colleen’s advice to “debug the process” and be okay with uncertainty isn’t just good advice for studying CS — it’s good advice for life.


AnitaB-org_logo_RGB.jpg

Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase the inspiring women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.