When anyone asks Wendy Guo why she’s passionate about getting more women involved in computer science, she points to the invention of the airbag.
“The example I always give comes from the auto industry,” said Guo, a William & Mary senior and president of the campus group Society of Women in Computing.
The first generation of automotive airbags were designed by an all-male group of engineers, she explained. They designed the device using the average height and weight chart for a grown man – a decision that had fatal consequences.
A review by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1996 found that at least 50 fatalities had resulted directly from airbags. The overwhelming majority of victims were women and children.
“They modeled the physics around men, because they didn’t have a female engineer on their team,” Guo said. “They totally failed to create an airbag that would apply to everyone.”
Getting more women on the team has served as the guiding principle for Guo and the campus society she helped create. This month, the group received the Outstanding Community Service Award from the Association for Computing Machinery for their efforts to encourage middle school girls to become involved in computing. The ACM is the world's largest computing society and the primary professional organization for computer scientists.
“The SWC’s achievement makes me incredibly proud,” said Evgenia Smirni, S. P. Chockley Professor of Computer Science. “The outreach effort required great organization, superb technical ability, street smarts and tenacity to make it happen.”
When SWC was established as a student ACM chapter in late 2016, Guo said the founders agreed to focus on community engagement. Research suggests middle school is the most important time to expose girls to programming, so the team began designing a computing course for girls.
“We started this organization with the main goal in mind of starting a mentorship program,” Guo said.
They decided to partner with a middle school in the local school district. After crunching some numbers, they landed on Berkeley Middle School. The school has one of the largest minority populations in the district – hovering near 50 percent. It also demonstrates a strong economic need. According to the Virginia Department of Education, half of all Berkeley students receive free or reduced price lunch.
The five-member SWC board spent the summer of 2017 crafting weekly lesson plans for the Berkeley Girls Robotics Mentorship Program. They designed coding projects to appeal specifically to girls, from programming Harry Potter-style sorting hats to making music and using microbots to draw shapes.
“The way we chose what projects to do was based on a lot of research about how to retain girls in computer science,” Guo said. “That’s the biggest issue. It’s not that they are necessarily uninterested, it’s that so much is geared toward boys.”
The 8-week afterschool program launched in January with 10 girls enrolled and four SWC mentors. Guo said she began the course by asking the students what they liked to do. The mentors further adapted lesson plans to find projects that directly related to students’ interests. The result was an engaged group of middle school coders, who developed deep bonds with their W&M mentors.
“Everyone has this image of what it means to be a developer and I think it mattered that none of us really fit that stereotype,” said Aparna Nagaraj ‘19, who served as a student mentor and will be continuing the Berkeley initiative this fall as SWC’s incoming president. “It all goes back to conditioning, the way that society tells girls they should not be interested in computer science. If we can be there, showing the students that the prevailing stereotype is not true, that’s how we begin to make change.”
As president, Nagaraj says she plans to grow SWC’s presence on campus. SWC just began adding dues-paying members this semester and is already 20 students strong. As the group continues to focus on its mission of “raising awareness and breaking stereotypes about the gender gap in computing,” the Berkeley partnership will remain a key priority.
“The buzz is already out there about students looking forward to joining the robotics club next year,” said Tonia Eriksen, library media specialist at Berkeley Middle School. “The Society of Woman in Computing really set the bar for this new program. We’re looking forward to working with the next group of amazing mentors.”
While SWC is currently partnering exclusively with Berkeley, Guo says she hopes to one day expand the mentorship program to other schools in the district.
“Even if we grow, just reaching one girl is important,” Guo said. “I remember the first time one of the students told me ‘I want to be a computer scientist.’ When I heard her say that, I realized that was the whole point. Even if it was just one person, hearing one girl say that made me feel like all of it was worthwhile for us.”