As a founding member of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Pacesetters program, Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering is striving to increase the number of women in its curriculum. 

“Our enrollment of women in our graduate program is actually higher than the national average, but we are still working on our percentage of female undergraduates,” said Barbara Ryder, professor of computer science and the department head.

As part of this national coalition, Virginia Tech has participated in this pilot program for the past two years. “Our recruiting activities to date have concentrated on meeting with high school students and talking to first year students in our own college of engineering,” said Ryder, who holds the J. Myron Maupin Professorship.

In her department, 35 percent of the recent master’s graduates, and 25 percent of the recent Ph.D. graduates were women. The computer science department also has six female teaching and research faculty.

To improve upon Virginia Tech’s undergraduate female student numbers, Ryder and two additional faculty members of the department on the Pacesetters team, Manuel Perez-Quinones and Scott McCrickard, are pursuing what they called “designer minors.” These students might combine the study of computer science with other disciplines such as business, mathematics, and psychology. These minors are being formulated collaboratively with leaders of the other departments. The team has set a goal to have 10 females enroll as minors in computer science annually.

They also worked to increase the number of women graduating from college with technical degrees by targeting outreach efforts to high schools. They made visits to numerous high schools, providing the teenagers with interactions with mentors and with currently enrolled women in computer science. “Our goal here is to connect with 25 to 50 high school girls each year,” Ryder said. Within one year, from summer of 2010 to the spring of 2011, she noted a 56 percent increase in the number of female high school students who met with them.

Since Virginia Tech offers a general engineering curriculum to its freshmen engineering students, allowing them to learn more about its 13 different departments, Ryder and her faculty also held meetings with the first-year students. “By connecting young women from our existing magnet programs such as our unique on-campus housing and mentoring programs for females pursuing engineering studies, we hope to double the number of women in computer science from the 2009 graduating class number of eight,” Ryder said.

“We have turned a corner on the total numbers of students, with 429 computer science majors in the pipeline as of this fall, representing slightly over nine percent female,” Ryder added. “In terms of numbers of women, these numbers forecast are more than 50 percent growth in the number of computer science women graduates in the next one to two years.”

As a member of the Pacesetters, Virginia Tech is among some 23 industrial and academic organizations working to recruit previously untapped talent pools of technical women and retain women who are at risk of leaving, resulting in “net new women” for the computing and the information technology workforce.

“Women are our competitive advantage in building a workforce that reflects our customer base and creating innovative, technology-driven products and services,” Ryder said. “We’re excited to see a growing number of women take interest in our highly ranked computer science program,” Ryder said. “We were ranked number five in the country by the Wall Street Journal in its recent poll of more than 450 recruiters that asked them from which institutions of higher education they prefer to employ students. And we rank among the top 30 computer science programs by the National Science Foundation for the number of doctoral graduates produced each year.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that more than 1.4 million computing-related jobs will be available in the U.S. workforce by 2018, yet by current trends American colleges and universities will produce less than one-third of the trained graduates needed to fill these jobs. Increasing the participation of women, who currently represent half the professional workforce but hold only 25 percent of technology jobs, holds the potential to increase both the quantity and quality of U.S. technical talent.

The current cohort of NCWIT Pacesetters organizations includes: Apple Inc.; AT&T Corporation; ATLAS Institute; Bank of America; Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Carnegie Mellon University; Georgia Institute of Technology; Google Inc.; IBM Corporation; Indiana University; Intel Corporation; Microsoft Corporation; Pfizer Inc.; Qualcomm Inc.; Santa Clara University; University of California Irvine; University of California Santa Cruz; University of Colorado at Boulder; University of Texas at Austin; University of Virginia; University of Washington; Villanova; and Virginia Tech.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology is a non-profit coalition of more than 300 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase women's participation in information technology and computing. NCWIT helps organizations recruit, retain, and advance women from kindergarden through 12th grade and higher education through industry and entrepreneurial careers. NCWIT also provides statistics, research, best practices and a national voice for the increased participation of girls and women in information technology and computing.

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