Sowing the Seeds of Future Innovation

Is the U.S. ceding its position as the most innovative country on the globe?

To the degree that innovation depends on a domestic population that is well educated in innovation’s building blocks – computer science and information technology – then the answer is yes. Interest in studying these fields has declined 70 percent among incoming freshman at U.S. universities. The decline is especially precipitous among women, whose participation in computer science and IT peaked back in the 1980s. And that’s too bad, because women’s contributions to technology innovation have enormous growth potential.

But corporations are recognizing the importance of diversity in innovation. They are applying resources to recruit and retain employees from a broad swath of backgrounds and experience, because they know that this diversity will yield a broader and more creative set of innovations and solutions.

Microsoft Research, in underwriting the NCWIT Academic Alliance Seed Fund program, is stimulating innovative ways to increase diversity in the IT workforce. The Seed Fund provides members of NCWIT’s Academic Alliance with startup funds (up to $15,000 per project) to develop and implement initiatives for recruiting and retaining women in computing and information technology. Four projects were selected for funding and the award-winners’ targeted efforts to engage young women’s interest in CS and IT pursuits will move forward this academic year.

“Inspiring AmbITion,” led by the Colorado Coalition for Gender and Information Technology (CCGIT), will develop and disseminate a multimedia outreach program to recruit women, non-traditional age groups, and underrepresented minorities from community colleges into four-year computing and IT programs. The project is funded for $10,000 and will bring together three Colorado universities (the Women’s College of the University of Denver, the Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Colorado at Boulder).

“Leveling the CS1 Playing Field,” an initiative from DePauw University, seeks to engage first-year women students through role modeling, dispelling myths about computing, and showcasing a broad variety of computing careers and lifestyles. The project will use its $10,000 funding to produce a video for incoming freshman women that provides information about introductory computing courses and encourages confidence in their potential and ability.

Oregon State University’s “Computer Science Ambassador Program: Students Recruiting Students” leverages its highly successful “Ambassadors in Engineering” program as the model for a new student-to-student recruitment initiative focused on attracting college-bound high school students to computing. The $15,000 award will help to fund ambassador demonstrations and hands-on activities that highlight computer science, including high school classroom presentations, careers fairs, family science nights, and workshops for high-school guidance counselors.

The University of Pennsylvania will receive $10,000 for its “CS Outreach Program to High School Girls,” a project that will perform outreach to high school girls on a national level and culminate in a March 2008 conference. The initiative’s goal is to target students from 2,500 high schools nationwide, and encourage their interest in computing by providing them with academic and career advice as well as mentoring from undergraduate computer science majors.

Although the impact of these programs is difficult to predict today, the potential for tomorrow is huge. Selected high schools in Oregon, Indiana, Colorado, and Wyoming will receive in-person visits from “near peers.” High school girls at 2,500 high schools in the U.S. will get access to information materials.

What would you do with startup funding to increase women’s participation? Does your institution have a great outreach or retention program that would benefit more people if it had a broader reach? Let us know. The deadline for the next round of NCWIT Academic Alliance Seed Fund proposals is November 1, 2007. Information about the Seed Fund program, including proposal requirements, the review process, and how to become an eligible Academic Alliance member, is available here.

Jennifer Kurtz is Project Manager of the NCWIT Academic Alliance. Formerly she was Director of Strategic Relations and Communications at CERIAS, the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security.

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