Making Ada Proud

UMBC's Center for Women in Technology boosts diversity in a growing industry

Cync Ribbon CuttingOctober 15, 2013 is “Ada Lovelace Day” – an international celebration of achievements by women in STEM fields. Lovelace was the daughter of Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron – and a mathematical genius whose work in the 19th Century on an “Analytical Engine” has led her to be dubbed “the world’s first computer programmer.”

We’re celebrating the day with a look at UMBC’s Center for Women in Technology – a program that is boosts the prospects for a more diverse technological industry by identifying and training the Ada Lovelaces of today.

UMBC’s Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) has become one of the university’s signature tech programs. But it started back in 1990 with a humanities professor and her new email account.

Joan Korenman, a professor emerita of English who was director of UMBC’s women’s studies program at the time, was bowled over by the immediacy of the new technology and open to its possibilities. “It seemed to me that [email] would be a great women’s studies tool,” she recalls.

Yet as Korenman dove into the wired world, she observed that societal gender gaps were being replicated – and deepened – in the burgeoning landscape of technology. “Even as late as 1995, I remember a survey that said only 5 percent of Internet users were women,” she notes.

Korenman worried the positive changes for women that she had seen in her lifetime might be wiped out if women weren’t actively involved in the field. So she founded CWIT to “focus on women as users and developers of information technology.”

Twenty-three years later, Penny Rheingans, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at UMBC, serves as the program’s director. She observes that the program remains dedicated to “increasing the representation of women among those who create technology.”

The CWIT Scholars program is at the heart of the center’s activities. The 44 undergraduates in engineering or technology selected for the program are surrounded by a community of peers and receive mentoring from faculty, fellow students, and industry professionals. These scholars also have the opportunity to live together on campus in the CWIT Living Learning Community in Erickson Hall.

Former CWIT Scholar Dana Douglas ’07, information systems management, and  ’10, M.S.,  information systems, found a job performing research and usability studies in interface design for UserWorks, a company located in Silver Spring. “The constant support of the staff [at CWIT], as well as my fellow scholars,” she says, “really gave me the confidence to realize that I could [work in information systems] – and that even if I struggled, that was okay.”

CWIT’s combination of academic rigor and community has led to some remarkable student outcomes. The program has a 90 percent six-year graduation rate, compared to a 50 to 60 percent rate for non-CWIT scholars.

Indeed, the center’s successes have been apparent to federal research agencies and private industry, both of which have provided funding to expand the center’s work in engineering greater diversity in the tech sector.

The National Science Foundation is supporting the Transfer Scholars in Information Technology and Engineering (T-SITE) with a grant for 12 transfer students to find the same community. And the  Northrop Grumman Foundation has provided funding to create a Cyber Scholars program for nine students with a particular focus on cybersecurity.

Rheingans says that the new programs “serve the core mission of increasing the gender diversity of technology fields, but also highlight different paths into the field – either through community college  or through discovery while at UMBC. Both programs also bring additional complementary aspects of diversity, such as the increased economic diversity that UMBC receives from transfer students.”

– Nicole Ruediger