Some things learned at NCWIT

Summit

I attended the NCWIT meetings at Georgia Tech in Atlanta just before Thanksgiving, and came home with a bounty of new thoughts, ideas, and information. I heard about programs that people are trying in different places, how they are trying them, and what early results they are seeing. I heard a wonderful talk on influence. I heard about possible opportunities for my students, including things we or they might try and resources available to them. I heard things that, since my return, I have been steadily quoting or trying or using in my interactions with the faculty, students, and partners in industry with whom I work and collaborate. Here are some of the highlights.

An increasing number of universities are trying and/or continuing more different ways of teaching introductory courses, with more practical approaches and more variety. Based on stories and information we've learned in previous NCWIT meetings from places like Georgia Tech and the University of Colorado, we have started using Alice in our very introductory courses. This time I particularly enjoyed Georgia Tech's comments about teaching computing in the context of how it is going to be used (building new interfaces, designing for robots, the Aware Home research initiative, and medical imaging). The fact that these programs are continuing to be very successful is inspiring some of our faculty to seek resources to allow us to broaden more of our courses in these directions.

Maria Klawe's (President of Harvey Mudd College) keynote speech on influence -- what it is and who can do it -- was wonderful. She talked about the importance of choosing a focused goal, planning a strategy, working with the existing trends (the "current" of a river), building coalitions of support, being patient and persistent (begin italics]"it always takes infinitely longer than you think"), being flexible and creative, and declaring success. She illustrated these steps with a story of instituting strategic planning and new initiatives in her previous job. Some of my favorite bits were:

  • Maria talked about the impact of teaching a broad cross-section of the faculty how to listen, and how many problems in many settings were addressed by this alone. This has inspired me to seek information about how to teach listening (beyond just really listening, without taking notes or thinking about your reply) to people for whom this skill does not come naturally (which I would claim includes most of us, including me).
  • Her technique for change is to listen first; then to articulate your goal in the context of the people with whom you are working to build change; to build-in things that will help them achieve their goals; to do strategic planning; and to ask for help (with a lovely image: "if you don't know how much to ask for, ask wrong.") I introduced these steps to a group of industry CS women who have asked my help as they try to encourage a modern level of respect and acceptance of diversity in their workplace. We have been experimenting with these steps and have seen some success in the early stages.
  • I liked Maria's description of the closing ceremony they used in the strategic planning meeting, in which each person says either one great idea they heard or one favorite thing about the day. I liked it so much that I used it at a research meeting and in a last-day-of-class meeting of my seminar. She is absolutely right -- this had the effect of bringing both of these to closure on a very upbeat note.

Some additional things I heard about which I care very much:

  • I heard with concern that there appears to be a trend toward lower average test scores in incoming CS students. We are not seeing this at our university, but we are watching for it.
  • I heard with excitement about possible financial support and scholarships to get our students to places like Grace Hopper (I now know that many people in my department already knew about this, but I did not).
  • I heard with interest some of the many ways NCWIT can help out. I am quite excited about the new "Programs-in-a-Box" kits (especially the Survey-in-a-Box). I also was interested in what NCWIT evaluators have done toward helping the universities they visit define and design changes toward the path of dramatic improvements.
  • I was particularly intrigued by a Georgia Tech program in which graduate students are paired with incoming freshmen to mentor them in research (including presenting their work), academics, and other skills, with all participating students being paid for their work. I have written to some of our local funding agencies to explore the possibility of money to pilot a similar program.
  • The Spelman robotics soccer tournament movies and stories were just plain fun.

Some favorite quotations from the meetings:

  • "You cannot concentrate on diversity of programs without diversity of thought."
  • "Asserting 'Our students are talented, successful, and happy' makes your students more of all of these."

    -Maria Klawe, illustrating her principle of declaring success)
  • "We need [information to support] evidence-based decisions about what to change, in a world of scarce resources."

My very favorite thing about NCWIT meetings, including this one, is the people I meet and the stories they tell. When I read a suggestion for change I may utterly fail when I try it. But during a formal presentation or over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a break, when someone else tells me how they really did it -- what they tried, what the students did or did not like, the changes they made, and anecdotes to illustrate all of the above -- I come away with vivid ideas about how to create success and how to avoid known pitfalls. It is a tremendously powerful experience.



Elaine Regelson is Director of Mentoring and Retention for the CS Department at Colorado State University.