Trip report: Day 3 of Grace Hopper

This is my fourth Grace Hopper conference, and one thing is universally true about my experiences at GHC:  by the end of day 3, I am mentally EXHAUSTED.  The days are so jam-packed and the networking and energy so intense that it really is hard to sustain over 3 days.  So if this post become incoherent at some point…well, you have been warned.

This morning’s keynote was by Fran Berman, VP of Research at RPI.  Fran talked a lot about the challenges of all of this digital data we are generating, amassing, and storing, and a bit about developing CS and engineering talent.  She had a lot of interesting factoids sprinkled throughout her talk:  for instance, by 2023, the number of pieces of digital data we will have will be greater than Avogadro’s number.  That just blows my mind.

I missed the rest of the morning sessions to attend a planning meeting for regional women in computing conferences.  Yesterday, I caught up with someone I had met on an NSF panel, who invited me to this meeting, but was kind of vague as to what the meeting was about.  Turns out that attending meant that I was volunteering myself to co-organize a regional conference!  After I got over my initial shock, and once I figured out why I was at the meeting, and after fighting the urge to flee (“what?  I’m not ready to do this!  I’m not qualified!  help!”), I did enjoy the meeting, and am looking forward to making this happen….soon, apparently(!).  Stay tuned to this space for more details.

Today was the annual Systers lunch.  Systers is a mailing list for women in computing.  I have been a member for about 10 years now (wow, has it really been that long?), and this lunch is always one of the more enjoyable lunches.  I shared a table today with an industrial researcher, a winner of a Pass-It-On Grant who runs a technology camp for girls in Nigeria, an undergrad finishing up her CS degree, a software engineer, and a woman who owns her own web design firm and is going back to school to get her CS degree.  To say that the conversations were interesting would be a gross understatement.  The coolest part of the lunch, though, was when the Pass-It-On Grant winner spoke about what getting the grant meant to her, which led to someone deciding to pass around a wine glass or three for impromptu donations, which resulted in over $500 raised for the next round of grants….in 5 minutes flat.

In the afternoon, I went to a talk by Susan Landau, of Sun, on telecom security and security policy.  She did a great job making the topic accessible and had some interesting stories.  Interesting gender phenomenon:  I never saw more than 1-2 men at a single session during the conference, except at this talk—I am fairly certain that almost all of the men in attendance were at this talk.

I also went to a (surprisingly sparsely-attended) session on recruitment and retention at primarily undergraduate institutions, where I discovered that St. Scholastica (yes, the one in Duluth) is kicking our asses in terms of percentage of women faculty and percentage of women CS majors—and that they have set a goal of gender parity in CS by 2019.  Go, neighbors!  The most popular recruitment/retention strategies seem to be (a) recruit student TAs and/or lab assistants who are women (check), (b) have women teach the intro CS courses (check—I’m teaching 2 of our 5 sections this year), (c) have women in computing groups (nope, sadly), (d) send women to represent the department whenever possible (nope, but we could do this), (e) personally invite good students in CS 1 to take CS 2 (check).

The day ended with the annual Friday night sponsor party, with the requisite t-shirts and blinky things and food and dancing.  I met up with a recent Carleton grad and got to catch up with her, which was lovely; and dispensed some random career advice to various strangers (always entertaining).  I did bail early though, due to the whole exhaustion thing I mentioned at the start of the post.

So, another year, another GHC in the books.  All in all, it was a great conference.  I met some junior faculty, networked with some senior faculty, and talked with a ton of graduate students at various stages in their careers, some of whom I hope will apply for our tenure-track position.  And I’m now at the point where I run into people I’ve met in previous years, too, which is always a treat.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference, in Atlanta (yay, Delta hub!).

Trip report: Days 1 and 2 of Grace Hopper

Greetings from Tucson!  I’m sure Tucson is a lovely, lovely city….but I’ve been so busy that I haven’t been able to do anything beyond enjoying the desert and mountain views through the hotel windows every day.  That’s the thing about the Grace Hopper Conference:  they sure do keep us busy!

As always, being here is such an incredible experience.  This year the conference once again broke attendance records:  over 1600 attendees!  And nearly half of them are students.  Think about it:  1600 technical women all in one place at one time.

It’s been a very busy 2 days.  Here are some of the highlights so far, by day:

Day 1:  Wednesday

This year, since we’re hiring, I decided to go for the full first day so that I could attend the PhD Forum in the morning.  These are technical talks given by students who are finishing up their PhDs.  I was blown away by the research I saw!  CS, I have seen the future, and it is interdisciplinary.  Highlights:  a machine learning talk that was so excellent, it almost made me want to change my field; and a talk by a student from New Zealand basically on the same topic as my Comps group’s project.  (I spoke with the speaker, Andrea Schweer, at length afterwards, and she gave me some excellent tips and resources to check out.  Thanks, Andrea!)

At lunch, I ended up sitting next to someone who is from Haifa….my husband’s hometown.  I should note that I often meet people at conferences and other random places who are from Haifa.  Small world, indeed!

The afternoon’s schedule had some workshops sponsored by CRA-W, with tracks for undergrads, grad students, and early career researchers.  Highlight o’ the day:  I got to hear Justine Cassell, who’s done incredibly creative and interesting work, speak—she is amazing.

The evening of the first night is always the poster session.  I meant to just drop in and drop off some flyers, but ended up staying the whole time.  There was so much interesting research represented!  And again, a good percentage of it was interdisciplinary.  Weirdest moment:  I saw someone who was basically doing the topic I did for my Master’s degree, only she’s exploring the same topic for 4G networks.  When I worked on the topic, it was for the analog cell network!  How times have changed in 15 short years.

Day 2:  Thursday

There are always a bunch of welcoming talks the first day.  During these speeches, the Anita Borg Institute unveiled a new promotional video called “I am a technical woman”:

(Update:  Forgot to mention that the footage for this was shot at last year’s Grace Hopper.)

Then it was time for the keynote, by Megan Smith, VP of New Business Development at Google and General Manager of  All I can say is WOW, was she great.  She talked a lot about technology as the great equalizer, and spoke at length about the importance of bridging the technology gap (and bringing more Internet connectivity!) in Africa.  A powerful message, and she is clearly very passionate and very committed to following through on this goal. (Fun fact:  she and I share the same hometown:  Buffalo, NY.)

I went to one session in the morning about best practices in teaching intro CS.  There, I learned about a version of team-based learning, or problem-based learning, specifically tailored to CS, called Peer-Led Team Learning.  I think this might be a better fit than straight-up TBL, and am wondering if I could try this out in 111 this winter and/or spring.  The panel also talked a lot about the value of pair programming and hands-on problem solving, both of which I do in my intro course, so it was nice to get that affirmation.  I also attended an interesting panel on interdisciplinary research.

In the afternoon, I saw 2 excellent speakers.  Martha Pollack, Dean of Michigan’s School of Information, was supposed to talk about her work in assistive technologies, but instead gave an excellent talk about the importance and challenges of doing CS research “outside the box”.  Manuela Veloso, of CMU, gave another highly entertaining talk about her work with robots, which was peppered with humor, candor, and insights about work-life balance and effective mentoring practices.  We have got to get her out to Carleton to speak!

As always, I met up with a lot of cool and interesting people today.  While I am usually very good at meeting new people at conferences, I have to say that the best meetups and conversations always happen at GHC, and today was no exception.

Tomorrow is another full day, and includes the annual Systers lunch and the sponsor parties.  Looking forward to it all!

Playing games in school?

While skimming Slashdot this morning, I found a link to this article, which describes a new public school in NYC (set to launch next month, if memory serves) with a curriculum based entirely on games.  In a nutshell, the school appears to be eschewing the traditional subject-based school curriculum for something more interdisciplinary and creative, with a focus on gameplay and collaborative projects as a means of both content delivery and content mastery.  Some of the games will be video games, but some of them will be role-playing or board games as well.  In addition, it looks like there will be a focus on content creation as well—the article alludes to the use of Adobe Flash and Maya, a 3D modeling program (although, annoyingly, it provides no further details).

I think this is a super-interesting experiment, and I am very curious to see how it all turns out.

As a computer scientist, I should be most excited about the use of technology to foster learning.  And don’t get me wrong—I think that’s very, very cool.  Getting students to create their own content is definitely a good thing, and exposing them to the tools of the trade is a smart move.  (Those tools ain’t cheap, either, so I’m assuming they have some good partnerships going on with tech companies?)  There’s a growing body of research on the effectiveness of games as educational tools, too, and it will be interesting to see if an entire game-based curriculum bears out some of the positive research findings.

But I actually find two other parts of this more intriguing:  the fact that the curriculum is entirely interdisciplinary, and the focus on collaborative learning.  Both of these make a bold statement as to what skills are important to foster right now for future success for our kids, and what the future world of work and school and society will look like.  I think the move away from “silos of learning” to a more holistic way of presenting and engaging with material—one that touches on multiple subjects at once—is the right way to go, and is the only way we’re really going to prepare students to deal with the Really Big Problems, like climate change and globalization.

As a professor, I am always thinking about context.  How do I best frame and present this information, or teach this concept, in such a way that I engage my students’ interest and meet them at their current level of understanding?  Often, my context comes from other fields, many of which have nothing to do with technology.  This school basically takes “context” and puts it on steroids:  figuring out a context that will touch on multiple learning goals from multiple areas.  This is way more difficult than what I do, and requires, I’m guessing, a ton of collaboration among the educators themselves.  But ultimately this harder work can have a much bigger payoff:  not just in what and how the students learn, but in the very fact that the educators themselves will be modeling the very collaborative behavior they wish to foster!

So I will be watching this experiment with interest.  I hope it succeeds.  And I’m curious what it can teach us, at the college level, about interdisciplinarity and collaboration.