Interesting Exchanges

Mark Guzdial

I spent the last two days at the National Academies in Washington, DC, attending the National Center for Women in IT bi-annual meeting. It was a really interesting meeting, as always.

Probably the most exciting part of the meeting was the power-packed Town Hall, jointly organized by NCWIT and the National Science Foundation. Rick Rashid, VP for all research at Microsoft, was the overall moderator. Panels included agencies (like Dept. of Education) and congressional staffers.

The presentations weren't just long, drawn out lists of what everyone was doing to improve diversity. Instead, there were substantial and interesting exchanges about where folks disagreed about diversity in IT. One of the staffers on the Senate Science committee made the strong claim that we don't want to be making decisions just based on diversity -- "Science is a meritocracy," he claimed. "Emphasizing anything else weakens our pursuit of excellence." The representative from the Department of Education claimed, "We don't know how to do math and science education right!" The audience members (including Richard Tapia) were quick to respond to these claims.

The highlight for me was the evening reception, and the speaker, Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Senator Obama was articulate about his vision for opening all doors to all female students, and brought it home with stories about his own daughters and his wishes for them as a father.

The second day was a meeting of the Academic Alliance of NCWIT, which was one of the best meetings I've attended. What was great was the solid, concrete reports of efforts that various schools were making to improve female participation in their departments--at Depauw University, U. Wisconsin-Madison, U. Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and U. California-Irvine. The biggest insight of the day for me came from David Notkin, chair of CSE at U. Washington, Seattle. "What if Computer Science is the Liberal Arts of the 21st Century? Maybe it's the jumping off point for any number of professions?" What a great idea, and what huge implications for our curriculum -- if we're aiming not to create software developers, but aiming to create technologically literate citizens.

Mark Guzdial is a Professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. He received his Ph.D. in education and computer science (a joint degree) at the University of Michigan in 1993, where he developed Emile, an environment for high school science learners programming multimedia demonstrations and physics simulations.