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NMSU Expands with Targeted Direction for Young Women in Computing Program

Only 15 percent of college students across the country pursuing degrees in computer science are women, but a program at New Mexico State University is reversing that trend. The Young Women in Computing outreach in the College of Arts and Sciences has more than doubled the numbers of young women going into computer science at NMSU.

Azul Toledo and Selene De Luna are participating in NMSU’s Young Women Growing Up Thinking Computationally summer camp program. The students were coding in Python to create a program that will run encryptions using ROT13. The project is a way for them to learn the language and create challenging and engaging projects. (Courtesy Photo)

“In the last 8 years we have reached out to more than 7,000 students,” said Rebecca Galves, program coordinator. “Just 250 in summer camps and more than 60 percent are going into STEM fields. Our own enrollment in computer science at NMSU has gone from 8 percent women to 23 percent.”

The success of the YWiC program has inspired an expansion, a targeted outreach called Young Women Growing Up Thinking Computationally. Activities explore different aspects of computing, such as robotics programs, coding concepts, app development and interactive development environments to create video games, stories, animated movies and more.

“YO-GUTC is the new direction for YWiC, which was approved for the Presidential Award fund this year,” Galves said. “We want to bring the expansion of integrating true computational thinking into our lesson planning and curriculum design starting this summer, moving beyond just computing.” In particular, “YO-GUTC explores the importance of mastery preparation and social capital in engaging and retaining young women in computing-related training programs,” said Enrico Pontelli, interim associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and director and founder of YWiC and YO-GUTC.

The new program is receiving $92,000 over three years from NMSU President Garrey Carruthers’ Performance Fund. Part of the program, focusing on Hispanic girls, will continue to receive targeted growth plans as before, but with new approaches.

“Hispanic/Latina communities have very strong family values,” Galves said. “Introducing careers in computing may be a new, misunderstood concept for many students, fearing that you have to leave the family support environment, yet it could actually be an ideal direction. Computing careers often allow computer scientists to make their own schedules, be in control of their own time and make really good money … all things that complement a culture where family comes first.

“YO-GUTC is intended to help take YWiC to the next level,” Galves said. “Now that we know more and have more experience, we can utilize what we have learned to broaden the participation even further.”

What makes the program work is that young women are teaching the classes themselves and learning from each other. High school students who attend a summer camp return to teach middle school students. There are NMSU graduate students who went through the YWiC program and are now teaching younger girls about computing.

“The program works best through peer relationships,” said Pontelli. “The girls themselves have to teach it. They decide what to teach, they decide the technology they want to use to teach. They choose the assessment.”

Year-round outreach events have included career fairs, Science & Math Nights and statewide competitions, including a third place finish in the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge this spring – a first for any team from southern New Mexico. In addition to summer camps and year-round workshops, facilitators have organized after-school clubs that allow students to learn more about the various platforms.

“No one else is providing the scope of activities offered in our Young Women in Computing outreach. I have not seen a program comparable to this one, with this level of involvement,” said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s incredible. We are seeing a pipeline of women coming from high school and going into computer science flowing through NMSU and into high paying jobs.”

Websites created this summer through YO-GUTC include a memorial site honoring a popular Girl Scouts leader. Students also learned to create wearable textiles with conductive thread and LED lights. One student designed a Winnie the Pooh tote bag with LED bees, a button and speaker by coding the notes for that plays the cartoon’s theme song.

Natasha Nesiba was among those young girls in the first YWiC summer camps. As a college freshman at NMSU, Nesiba was one of only seven high school seniors in the country to receive the competitive Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship after graduating from Las Cruces High School. But rather than use the scholarship, Google allowed her to create a $10,000 scholarship for another computer science student to honor her father Mark Nesiba. Now she is a graduate student at NMSU and continues to teach as a YO-GUTC instructor.

“Being a Hispanic woman in STEM, you feel like a unicorn,” said Nesiba. “The culture here at NMSU is different from anywhere in the world, I think. I tell the girls I work with ‘I’m from Las Cruces, New Mexico. I’ve gone to all the public schools you’ve gone to and if I can do it, you can do it.’”

For more information on the program, contact Galves at ywic@cs.nmsu.edu.

See original article at: http://newscenter.nmsu.edu/10552/.

Written by: Minerva Baumann and Isabel Rodriguez
August 14, 2014