April 2, 2006

WICS @ Columbia

by Mary Flanagan · , 9:24 pm

Thursday March 30th I gave a presentation positioning “radical computing” amidst gaming and computer science at the Columbia University Women in Computer Science (WICS) group.

I met some wonderful students and faculty, including a few folks from Teacher’s College and of course the Computer Science department. Dr. Julia Hirschberg is one of the WICS mentors at Columbia and does fascinating work in spoken language processing. Most campuses have WICS groups — if one does not, I encourage folks to start one!

Interesting tidbits: met Jonah Bossewitch, who is investigating “Permanent Records: Personal, Cultural, and Social Implications of Pervasive Omniscient Surveillance”; discussed this Poverty Simulation with David Elson; chatted with the organizer of the event, Lauren Wilcox in NLP; caught up briefly with Bernie Yee who is teaching a course in Video Game Design and Development, and Austin Grossman who co-teaches this term.

7 Responses to “WICS @ Columbia”

  1. David Elson Says:

    We’re glad you came! It was a great talk, aptly titled. You also outed me as a GTxA lurker, time to come out of the shadows…

  2. michael Says:

    In related news, the Alice project at CMU has been given access to all the animation from The Sims to incorporate into their course that uses Alice. The goal is to create a tool + curriculum that makes CS more appealing to girls.

    Caitlin Kelleher, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon, believes the Alice program can help reverse that trend, based on the work she has done with middle-school girls.

    “There’s kind of a critical period during middle school where girls sort of decide for or against math and science,” Ms. Kelleher said. And since most computer science courses are offered in high school or college, “if you can’t give them a positive exposure in middle school, by the end of high school you’re probably not going to get them back.”

    In working with middle school girls, many of them local Girl Scouts, Ms. Kelleher found that appealing to their storytelling instincts could overcome aversion to programming.

    To enhance that effect, she tweaked the basic Alice program, which is now used in 113 colleges and at least that many high schools, to make it more of a storytelling vehicle.

  3. michael Says:

    This Op-Ed in the LA Times describes how the roots of gender inequity in math and science goes back to
    the 5th century BC with Pythagoras.
    The idea that women are less innately inclined to rational, and especially to quantitative, thinking goes back to the very dawn of the Western intellectual tradition. It originates in the 5th century BC with the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos, the man who envisaged what would eventually become the modern science of physics and who first associated numbers with the male mind…
    Two thousand years after Pythagoras, we are on the verge of hearing the most symphonic of cosmic harmonies in a unified theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. But this magnificent quest has also left its imprint on our culture in an abiding tendency to still regard math and science as innately male. In such a climate, young girls of a scientific bent need all the support and encouragement they can get.

  4. mark Says:

    While I don’t endorse the naive male-centrism of Pythagoras, there does seem to be something lingering about his observation even in people who explicitly oppose it. Take the previous quotation: “In working with middle school girls, many of them local Girl Scouts, Ms. Kelleher found that appealing to their storytelling instincts could overcome aversion to programming.”

    This seems to pretty explicitly assert that middle-school girls are more likely to have an aversion to programming per se than middle-school boys. Now sure, one way to change the overall numbers of males and females in the field is to find something that middle-school girls like about the ends of programming that will cause them to bite the bullet and learn the means they don’t really like. But it doesn’t really answer the question of why middle-school girls and boys would have different levels of interest in programming per se in the first place. And if the reason is lingering cultural bias that causes young girls to be less interested in mathematical types of endeavors, then programs like this address one of the symptoms (learn math because it’s useful) but not the cause (why do more boys than girls find math in itself more interesting?)…

  5. michael Says:

    This article describes an outreach program called Just Be, developed by WIC @ IU, designed to introduce students to the idea that computer science can be a non-nerdy activity that’s linked more broadly to culture and society.

    “When we first meet with the kids, we ask them to close their eyes and describe what they see when they imagine a computer professional at work,” says Siek, a computer science doctoral student.

    “They usually conjure up images of a male, socially-challenged nerd working in isolation at a computer.”

    “We show them pictures of real computer people at work, at play, and that they can just be themselves and still computing professionals.” Just Be is entirely student run and organized, and its volunteers have presented at various schools throughout the Midwest, as well as local and national conferences.

    The goal of Just Be is to promote a positive image of computing to both women and men. Addressing Mark’s comment above, it’s not just women who are interested in things like telling stories with the computer, and are turned off by pocket-protector nerd culture.

  6. mark Says:

    Michael: I’m not talking about the “pocket-protector nerd culture”, but simply about being interested in playing with technology for its own sake. I know I had no connection to “nerd culture” when I first started tinkering with my Apple //c, because I had no modem, and my (real-life) friends weren’t particularly interested in computers. It was just something I found interesting. Most of my friends, male or female, didn’t, but my experience has been that more males than females do, although that is only a correlation, not an exclusive sort of thing. I guess I’m curious why that is, and insofar as it might represent cultural assumptions in child-rearing that push girls and boys into different stereotyped interests (“girls play with dolls; boys play with legos” isn’t really dead yet), I think it should be addressed.

    As an aside, I also think comments like “pocket-protector nerd culture” are vaguely offensive, and usually based on ignorance of the culture in question and a bit of unwarranted cultural elitism.

  7. mark Says:

    Actually this oddly reminds me a little bit of a discussion I had recently with a friend who runs a small publishing firm out of his house. Traditionally, most people running such companies have been huge book and printing nerds. They’re the sorts of people who salvage old letterpress machinery out of warehouses and stay up at night weighing the relative merits of 55# versus 60# paper for a particular book.

    Lately, small publishers (and self-publishing) have become much more popular in the past 5 years, and so a lot of new people are entering the field. Most of the newcomers are interested in the ends—publishing books that a major publisher wouldn’t take, or publishing them quickly, or with more artistic control, or as a publisher simply having the interesting experience of running a publishing company. Now some of these people become book nerds as well; the ends (publishing books) were basically the hook that brought them in, and then they too became obsessed with typefaces, paper varieties, layout, and binding. Many don’t, though; they’re interested in the means of publishing to the extent that they have to be in order to produce books.

    That’s not necessarily bad, but it is a different sort of competence. If my goal were simply to get a book published, either one would be fine, and maybe the non-nerd would be better at some other things, like marketing the book. But if I really wanted top quality, expert design advice, and so on, I would probably seek out a book nerd.

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