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This is the last of my posts about my assigned sessions at GHC09, but I'll probably write another one or two after I get some more photos uploaded. Stay tuned!

Gail CarmichaelGail Carmichael hit upon the idea of doing a 1 week course on games for girls when her university was soliciting proposals for "enrichment mini courses." These courses are largely attended by grade 8s (~13 year olds), typically the advanced students from the local schools. They're intended to give the students a one-week taste of the university environment. If you are interested in running such a program, Gail suggests that there are often similar programs in other cities, local summer camps, local WISE groups, the Girl Guides/Girl Scouts and many others who could help set something up.

The idea was to do a "head fake" -- get the girls excited about learning games, but manage to teach them computer science topics at the same time. The students seemed to crave the harder stuff, and really were excited about being told things like "they don't learn this until second year university!" once the girls had shown that they understood this difficult concept. Gail suggests that we shouldn't be afraid to give students complex concepts.

She notes that another thing the girls craved is Starbucks coffee... who knew?

When teaching younger students, variety seems to help a lot: Gail incorporates videos, lecture time, small groups, whole class discussions, lab time, and the activities from CS Unplugged.

It's interesting to note that Gail's advice for engaging younger students is very similar to the advice offered during the Best Practices for Introductory Computer Science session, which focused on university-aged students: get the students to work together, use interesting themes to motivate problems, and don't be afraid to give the students hard stuff.

The girls created games using the free tool GameMaker, chosen because it is relatively easy for the girls to make games from the drag-and-drop interface without learning programming. (As someone else who has taught students both with and without this interface, I'll add that for first year students, syntax errors can be a huge stumbling block. Tools like GameMaker allow them to create programs without typos making them frequently feel stupid and inadequate, which is a pretty huge advantage for beginners.) Some other (similar) game-creation tools that might be useful include Alice, Kodu, and Scratch.

So, how successful was it? Gail has run the course twice, and did informal surveys at the beginning and end of the course. Most of the girls thought computer science was a reasonable career for a woman, even before they took the course. This is perhaps not surprising, since they were at least interested enough to sign up for the course. But the real payoff was seeing that the girls really did like computer science more after having had a week to try it out.

Questions during Girls, Computer Science and Games

Gail ended up having the entire hour to herself, since the second speaker, Anne Marie Agnelli, was unable to attend. This gave an opportunity for Gail to showcase one of the games created by her students, as well as have a longer question/discussion section. In fact, the second half of the presentation became much more like a Birds of a Feather session where a variety of women talked about their questions and experiences.

For more notes, including those from the question session, and links to Gail's course materials and slides, see the excellent notes on the girls and games session on the Anita Borg Institute Wiki.
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Written for the official GHC blog, reposted because I love sharing teaching ideas

The panel started with the bad stuff: There were 50% fewer computer science students in 2007 than there were in 2000, with numbers continuing to decline in 2007-2008. The attrition rate is 30-40% in computer science, so we lose a lot of students every year.

Then they moved in to the good stuff: ideas that have worked at their respective universities: Duke, RIT, Union College and the College of New Jersey. There were lots of very specific tips, but I've grouped them into three parts: collaboration, themeing, and hard problems.

Best Practices for Introductory Computer Science Panel

  • Duke has a peer led team learning program, where students can become peer leaders and teach each other.

  • RIT has a game software development introductory sequence, where they teach the first 3 levels of CS as motivated by game design programs.

  • Union college has 5 different theme-based intro courses (plus one for engineers), so rather than working on generic problems in first year, they are immediately working on bioinformatics, game design, etc.

  • The College of New Jersey has a traditional track to level 3, but also accelerated multimedia track. And their CS 3 course has them working on socially relevant, interdisciplinary problems.

There were a variety of themes that came up in all the presentations: collaboration was a big one. Getting students to interact, work together, even teach each other seems to make a huge difference in their ability to learn and succeed. This was done in a variety of ways, from required group projects, teaching, wikis, to more subtle things like requiring use of tools the students may not have seen, so they are forced to learn together, or by teaching games, which tend to be very social. Students still sometimes have to be told "it's ok to talk to each other" but when they do learn to do that, they benefit.

Another theme was, well, themes. Students seemed to respond well to real-world problems, and themes can be used to inspire all assignments, examples, and lessons. Interest in the problems provides motivation for students to overcome the "hard" parts. And "getting it" is a lot more exciting when you're solving a problem that matters -- whether it's making your game work, or writing code that will be used by another department to solve a problem.

And finally, it's clear that in order to get more students to succeed, you don't need to dumb it down. Students are capable of doing very complex things when properly motivated and supported (both by the school and by their peers). In fact, they may be more motivated by hard problems than they would have been by simplified ones, since the hard problems are relevant to real problems. I really loved this part of the discussion, since I myself left computer science (I got a math degree first) because it was too easy and pointless. And I've noticed time and time again, now that I teach first year students, that they're way more capable than outsiders might expect.

I think the panelists summed up their key message well: "Set students up for success -- not failure."
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This video was released yesterday morning, and I think you should all see it. It's pretty simple, but somewhat overwhelming to see how many technical women there are! And if you're wondering what it's like here at GHC, it might give you a hint of how awesome it is. I can't wait to blog about our open source communities panel, the systers code sprint, the feminism panel, etc etc etc... but for now, amuse yourself with this. :)

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Originally written for the official Grace Hopper Celebration blog, cross-posted here because this session was pretty darned cool.

By the time we were ready to start, the session was full, with people sitting on the floor and clustered at the back, and more people still trying to get in the door. As a researcher, I've got to say I was thrilled to see so much interest! Although maybe they knew something about the presenters: every one of the women presenting in this session was enthusiastic and passionate about her research, and it made for a fantastic set of talks.

People sat on the floor and stood at the back when we ran out of chairs.
People sat on the floor and stood at the back when we ran out of chairs.

Julia Grace: Enterprise Social Networking: History, Current Practices, Research Challenges

Julia Grace
Julia Grace
Julia warmed up the crowd by asking about how many people use facebook, and nearly everyone put up their hand. She about how at IBM research, she gets to work with colleagues all around the world, which can sometimes present challenges. Not so long ago, if you wanted to talk to someone at work, you either walked into their office or picked up a phone, but as technology changes, we've gotten so many new ways to communicate. Students often adopt these tools before enterprises do, but that doesn't mean they don't have uses within the corporate world!

The new channels of communication have changed not only the technical way we send information, but also the way we use the information and the way interact. Julia talked about how increased information transparency -- such as conversations on internal microblogs that can be read by the whole company -- helps people form new connections because they can see information that used to private. This is true both inside and outside the enterprise, but she noted some things are different. For example, you actually want employees to connect with "strangers" in the form of work colleagues, while most people only want facebook friends who they actually know in some way.

One thing Julia noted which I've had to explain time and time again is that you don't know how valuable social networking can be until you try it. This is just as true within the enterprise as it is within people's out-of-work lives. The gains are "soft" in that sometimes these tools can be a time suck, but sometimes they're essential for work: microblogging can help let people know if one office is having network issues, allow people to get quick feedback on questions, and do a lot of things that are important for business. The challenge, of course, is dealing with information overload, and Julia talked a bit about ways to filter information and make things more manageable.

Julia joked that her manager didn't want to see "we get paid to spend time on facebook" on her slides, but it's clear that she does a lot more than that -- she's been really thinking about ways that these tools can be useful, and how we can make them more useful.

Clare J. Hooper: Tugging at the Seams: Understanding the Fabric of Social Sites

Clare J. Hooper
Clare J. Hooper
Clare started by talking a bit about the digital divide, and how, to really understand why it happens, we have to have a better understanding of the experience of using social tech. The attitudes, behaviour, and how it is more of an ambient awareness: you don't only log in to facebook to do one task, you log in to learn about what's going on. This is a very new phenomenon.

One thing that has been useful in explaining social networking has been the "Dix deconstruction" which talks about "pulling apart" an experience and finding the essence. Clare used the example of the shared experience of christmas crackers -- when making a digital version, it was important to make it so no one could see the contents until both people had "pulled" the digital cracker. It's not just the visual experience that matters!

So how does Clare think we can use this as software engineers? She says the important part is to look not only at "pulling apart" but also at "putting together" -- deconstruction and reconstruction. She gave the example of microblogging: we can list the surface stuff about there being X number of characters, a share button, and a list of previous updates. You can look at the abstract ideas, about status updates giving you a presence within your social network community, or about the uncertainty about whether your friends will read that update. She suggests that the best way to summarize the key effects is with one simple, neutral sentence. So those status updates are about small messages broadcast to a community, although they may not be received. Note that messages don't have to be text -- they could be pictures, etc. That's why the "neutral" description, to capture the essence without getting too fixated on the specific technology.

Clare suggested that one might try reconstructing the status update experience using a t-shirt with a scrolling, updateable message. Similarly, you'd be broadcasting a message, to a small community around you, some of whom might not be paying attention. But it's a big step from microblogging to t-shirt displays.

She's looking forwards to helping provide broad access to online social tools, and to do this you need to understand those core experiences. She'll be working on evaluating these ideas both at her university and at IBM.

Katie A. Siek: The Knot or the Noose? Analysis of Privacy on a Wedding Planning Website

Katie A. Siek
Katie A. Siek
Katie introduced her talk by talking a little bit about herself and how this study fit into her career scheme. She had been working on helping people track health information, including work with records-handling at hospitals, and was starting to wonder how to encourage people to keep these records updated. There's a groan from the crowd as she talks about letting people keep health data on facebook.

She then said something I loved, "Another great thing about research is that research is everywhere!" -- so she while planning her wedding, she found the sites she visited could be part of her work. The Knot is a wedding website with plenty of users, where people can go to brag about their weddings. The site encourages people to share as much information as possible by providing incentives like choosing great profiles to be part of a magazine. But unfortunately, this can lead to privacy concerns... Katie pointed out one person who she was able to quickly track down by phone just from the information in the profile, and says that it's generally pretty easy.

But why is that scary? I was appalled (if not surprised as a security researcher) by the stories she had to tell about bad stuff that's happened to people. There's enough information there for mean people to cancel weddings! "Oh, I'm the wedding planner for so-and-so, getting married on this date, and something really bad has come up..." It sounds like a plot device from a wedding chick flick, but apparently this has actually happened to people! As well as phishing scams, where people were sent legitimate sounding invoices that they paid and they money went to scammers, identity theft, and even robbery when a thief knows when you'll be away on your honeymoon, what your house looks like and where the more valuable things are inside.

But meanwhile, The Knot website itself really wants people to share as much information as possible. More content means more sponsors, more money for them. It can be hard to balance corporate desires against privacy issues.

I was really thrilled to hear that Katie's research had an immediate effect: when they started asking survey questions which made people aware about how much information they were sharing and how dangerous that could be, people started changing their bios! And she's looking at further ways to educate people so they don't get caught, as well as how to tie these information sharing issues back into her other work with health records.

I'm sorry not everyone could get in to the room to hear these great talks, but hopefully I've given you a taste of what you missed! If you want to hear more, all three women are happy to hear from you -- just look them up.

Edit: The photos are now posted as promised.
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Written for the official GHC blog, cross-posted here for my friends.

I summed up my day of volunteering as a Hopper in less than 140 characters on Twitter:

@terriko terriko the #ghc09 Hopper workout: 3000 steps while doing upper body reps -- also known as filling all the conference bags with neat stuff!

But since a picture's worth a thousand words, and I'm also volunteering as a photographer and blogger, I thought I should put it all together for you to see how things are starting to come together here in Tuscon.

For the Monday Hopper assignments, we were filling the conference bags. The room was filled with tables, boxes, and volunteers. And those boxes are filled with cool stuff! I'm going to leave the bag contents as a surprise, but I've got to say it was neat to see tech company logos on women-oriented swag, as well as all the neat general tech swag we were packaging.

GHC09: Hopper volunteers walk around filling the bags

We found a few ways to speed up the process of filling the bags. Some Hoppers collected paper items together for easier grabbing. The rest of us walked around the room, over and over again, with a bag, grabbing swag from each box and filling it up. Many of us quickly discovered that we could do two bags at once if we put one on either arm and used both hands to fill them! But just because your hands were busy didn't mean you couldn't talk -- technology, research, teaching, working... As I moved around sometimes I only heard snatches of very cool conversations, and sometimes a few of us would synch up and walk together and chat. So many smart women, interested in stuff I think is cool! I totally eavesdropped every chance I could, and joined in when I could too.

GHC09 bags GHC09: Three lovely ladies package small swag GHC09: A demonstration of the two-handed bag stuffing technique GHC09: Filling folders

The problem with the two-hand technique is that your arms start to get sore from lifting and stuffing! And once my arms got sore, I got to thinking about how much exercise this was, so I grabbed my pedometer to see how many steps it was, and estimated back to figure out how many I did. Some of the other volunteers may have done more, since I stopped to take photos when my arms got tired!

The benefit to all this efficiency is that we finished super early, so it wasn't long before we were back out in the crazy hot Tuscon weather, enjoying the beautiful scenery:

The CU-WISE women - me + cactus at GHC09

PS - If you want some more photos to whet your appetite, you can see my GHC09 gallery or check out our GHC group on flickr! There are already pre-conference photos going up there!
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