Maryland Center for Women in Computing Celebrates Five Years of Success

Nov 21, 2019

What began as a solitary idea to better support women in computing at the University of Maryland has blossomed into a multifaceted program that’s touched the lives of more than 6,000 young people across the region.

The Maryland Center for Women in Computing recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, marking the occasion with a showcase event that highlighted the center’s activities in research, education, outreach and partnerships.

Led by Jan Plane, a principal lecturer in computer science, the center was established in 2014 to encourage and support women on the UMD campus seeking a computer science degree and inspire girls in K–12 education to consider computing as a field.

Plane keenly understood the challenges that underrepresented groups faced in computing. In addition to teaching at Maryland, she worked for years in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, developing capacity-building programs for computer science education.

She says that enrollment in computer science has rapidly risen over the past decade—it is now the largest major on the UMD campus. Yet women are significantly underrepresented in the field: nationally, the percentage of women seeking a degree in computer science remains stagnant at about 18 percent; at UMD, the number was only 16.5 percent as recently as 2015.

Five years ago, Plane approached the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, asking for support to increase diversity in all fields of computing by providing opportunities for individuals who identify as women to engage and contribute to the technical community at large.

With funding from the college, matched by support from the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and the Department of Computer Science, the center was launched in renovated space in the A.V. Williams Building.

It began to implement several outreach programs that were soon followed by a series of retention initiatives supporting UMD female computer science majors throughout their undergraduate and graduate experience. This included scholarships, mentoring, peer networking opportunities, as well as funding to attend numerous workshops and conferences.

The results of these efforts are impressive: the number of female computer science undergraduates at Maryland has more than doubled over the last five years, rising from 318 in 2014 to 738 this year.

“Through our team’s hard work, we’ve made great progress and accomplished many of our goals, supporting more than 1,000 Maryland computer science students since 2014,” Plane says.

What’s particularly exciting, Plane adds, is that the department is likely to surpass the 20-percent mark for women graduating in computer science in the near future.

Rachel Walter, a senior majoring in computer science, has been involved with the center since 2017. She calls it a “much needed support system.”

“It’s connected me to more women in my department who’ve helped me overcome challenges and find a community,” Walter says.

Through her connection to the center, Walter volunteered for several outreach programs for K–12 girls focused on sparking their interest in computer science at an early age.

She currently leads several after-school outreach programs and weekend workshops that gives K–12 students from across the region and from all backgrounds—especially underrepresented populations—the opportunity to learn computer science.

“We provide support for young students who might not have opportunities to learn computer science in their schools, or who may be intimidated by the subject,” Walter says.

Plane says that the center has served more than 5,000 regional K–12 students in the past five years. One example is the highly successful CompSciConnect program, a two-week summer camp designed to introduce middle school students from underrepresented populations to programming concepts using robots, Scratch software, dynamic web pages, and virtual reality.

Campers also learn additional computing skills by learning about number theory, cybersecurity, logic puzzles, and proper computer use and online safety. (Go here to view a Big Ten video that highlights CompSciConnect.)

Since its inception, more than 350 students have participated in CompSciConnect, including identical twins Mikaila and Alexis Esuke, who are currently UMD freshmen majoring in mechanical engineering and chemical engineering, respectively.

The twins, who graduated from Bowie High School last year as co-valedictorians, attended CompSciConnect in middle school. After completing the program, they returned several years later as high school seniors, offering mentorship and support for younger students attending the camp.

They both credit the summer camp with helping them feel more comfortable entering the male-dominated field of engineering.

“This is what we do,” says Plane. “We provide the tools and support for young women to excel in computing, and hopefully they will carry the message to others wanting to pursue their own dreams and aspirations.”

—Story by Melissa Brachfeld

The Maryland Center for Women in Computing is now part of the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing, established in February 2019 with a $1 million gift from Brendan Iribe, a UMD alumnus and co-founder of virtual reality company Oculus. The center’s activities and outreach programs—now based in the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering—are expected to increase significantly over the next 18 months.