The 2013 NCWIT Summit wrapped up yesterday, and as always it was time well spent. This is my 4th NCWIT summit, and my 3rd as a member*—Carleton joined, I believe, in 2011. It’s always great to see old friends and colleagues from other schools and these summits are always in great locations (this year’s setting, in Tucson, was especially nice). But the main draw, of course, is that I learn so much and take so many ideas back from these summits, year after year after year.
There was so much that went on at this year’s summit, but here are a few of the highlights from my perspective:
- NCWIT is big on “best practices backed up by research” and so every year we hear from social scientists on relevant research (stereotype threat, implicit bias, etc). These talks tend to be very powerful, and this year was no exception. On Tuesday, David Neal spoke about disrupting habits, and how our habitual self combined with familiar surroundings can make even the best intentions from the best people go awry. (He used a great study to illustrate his point, in which people in a movie theater setting would eat stale popcorn in rather large quantities, even moreso than fresh popcorn if memory serves. Here, the theater is the trigger to eat popcorn, even if the popcorn is yucky.) This of course has implications for changing attitudes and culture in STEM: even if your entire organization is on board, if your cues are the same and the environment hasn’t changed, you’ll keep doing what you’re doing, pretty much subconsciously. Food for thought…er, no pun intended. Wednesday’s plenary featured Carol Dweck, who spoke on fixed vs. growth mindsets (i.e. do you believe that intelligence is something you’re born with or something you can develop?) and how fixed mindsets can not only harm learners, but basically have the same effect as stereotype threat. It was an amazing talk, and one of her last slides was the most powerful. She showed that the more a field believes that “raw genius” is required for success (*cough* CS *cough* Physics *cough* Engineering) rather than effort, the fewer female PhDs the field has. It’s definitely made me think about ways I can give feedback to my students….and to my kids, too….that will help them adopt a growth mindset. (Hint: Focus on the process, not the outcome.) I also loved her anecdote about the Chicago school that swapped out their F grades with “Not Yet” grades, and what effect that’s had on the students *and* student achievement.
- Speaking of plenaries, Michael Schwern, Perl developer extraordinaire, gave a truly fascinating (and often depressing) talk about his own experiences in open source, which has a notoriously dreadful diversity record. He had some great insights about how to talk about privilege with people who don’t want to hear about privilege, and in general about getting the conversation started with people who don’t want to or don’t feel the need to have these conversations. He also brought up Nóirín Plunkett, technical writer and open source contributor extraordinaire, who spoke in very real and very raw terms about her (often awful) experiences in the open source community. This was one of the more powerful talks I’ve seen recently, and unfortunately shows just how far we have to go still to broaden participation.
- Capitalizing on last year’s wildly successful flash talks, this year also featured flash talks, and they did not disappoint. Funny, touching, poignant, funny….did I say funny? Awesome.
- This was my first year as a project team leader, and so I got to see things from “the other side”, as it were. Our project team (recruitment and engagement) was very busy this year, running 2 sessions during the Academic Alliance meetings. We rolled out a new goal-setting initiative (our big project this year!) and kicked it off with a great panel featuring three institutions that have done some really neat things with NCWIT seed funds and resources. They were inspiring and frank. And we also got to have breakfast with the newest Academic Alliance members, which is always fun. In general, it was interesting to see how the decisions the co-chairs and project leads made about the summit in the months leading up to the summit played out (mostly fine).
I head back home today, full of new ideas and new contacts and a renewed sense of optimism about what we can accomplish. And as always, I’m already looking forward to next year’s summit!
* Genius move: I went to my first summit in Portland in 2010 as a guest (the regional women in computing conference coordinators were brought in as guests that year), and of course the whole thing was so fabulous and I learned so much and promptly went back to my institution and said “We need to be a part of this.” Smart recruiting move, NCWIT!