Jeannette Wing gives keynote address for NCWIT meeting

Last week, Carnegie Mellon hosted a meeting for the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). Attendees were treated to an energetic keynote address from Jeannette Wing, head of CMU?s Computer Science department. Wing spoke about the department?s history, challenges, and how to implement changes that support women in technical fields by following CMU?s examples of outreach and education.
Wing emphasized how interdisciplinary and pervasive CS is on CMU?s campus. The department?s broad vision of the field encompasses many other departments, including biology, philosophy, engineering, robotics, and drama. ?Every department wants a piece of us,? Wing said.
Founded 40 years ago, the CS department began as a graduate program but has since grown to include a bachelors degree. Prior to 1999, the number of female undergraduates rang in at seven percent. That number grew over the years, peaking in 2000 when the number of female undergraduates was 39 percent.
Obviously, the gender gap was a concern for the department. The Margolis-Fisher study, done by two CS professors at CMU in 1998, proposed that there are fundamental gender differences with respect to computer science application. In addition, they said that creating a community of undergraduate women was an unsuccessful support strategy.
Wing outlined what the CS department did in order to get a diverse selection of CS candidates in the door. First, the department changed their admissions criteria, explicitly stating that no prior programming experience was necessary. The second change was to look for leaders within the applicant pool. In this way, the department maintained their standards while increasing the diversity of admitted students.
While getting students in the door was the first step, Wing noted that the job was not over; the department also had to concentrate on getting students out the door. ?We have a real commitment to success,? Wing said. To this end, the department made an effort to provide lots of support for all students to reach the proficiency level of the core 200-level courses.
Another key initiative was to create a strong sense of community in the form of Women@SCS, a group that participates in and hosts philanthropic, professional, and social activities.
In response to the Margolis-Fisher study, a follow up study done in May 2005 by Lenore Blum and Carol Frieze, also CS faculty at CMU, turned the findings upside down. Following the changes in admissions criteria and curriculum, the gender differences disappeared, and they determined that creating a women?s community, like Women@SCS, had a positive effect.
During the question and answer portion of Wing?s keynote, Lilian Wu from IBM asked, ?Not too many CS departments have followed what CMU has done and adapted it to their institutions. Why?? To this, Wing responded with an emphatic ?I don?t know!? but went on to say: ?you have to find that one person committed.?
Most importantly, Wing charged the men and women at the NCWIT to ?present CS for what it is, [not] dumb it down.?