Computer science students receive $5,000 grant from Google to mentor local students

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By Song My Hoang

Computer science majors Liana Nunziato ’15, Jess Sanford ’16 and Julia Isaac ’16, who are members of the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Women, recently received a $5,000 grant from Google to develop an afterschool program to mentor local middle school students on social robotics.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science Nick Webb oversees the project.

According to the Department of Computer Science’s website, ACM-W was approached by Google to collaborate on a pilot project that aims to “encourage undergraduates to become mentors to younger students and help make CS exciting.”

Google would fund up to 15 programs at approximately $10,000 each.

The project needed to meet four criteria. First, there must be “the commitment of a faculty advisor.”

Second, it must be an “ongoing program for the spring and/or summer of 2015.”

Third, the students must offer “periodic feedback via provided surveys.”

Fourth, “the students must establish a partnership with a local group of middle school or high school students at the time of the application.”

Nunziato explained that ACM-W seeks to promote the education of women in computer science.

Nunziato, Sanford and Isaac were inspired to submit an application to Google after their involvement with Webb’s existing Social Robotics Workshop.

Webb and Service Assistant Professor at the College of Computing and Information at SUNY Albany Jennifer Goodall developed the Social Robotics Workshop through a grant from the National Center for Women in Information Technology in 2007.

According to SUNY Albany’s website, “the workshop engages students with interesting tasks that explore the capabilities and ideas behind robotic platforms.”

It aims to create robots that can “interpret and produce a wide range of social function, which allow them to work alongside and collaborate with humans in real world environments.”

The workshop instills students with the basic understanding of the challenges of creating a robot.

Webb has given the workshop to approximately 500 people in the Albany area and each workshop lasts from one to two hours.

Webb shared his publication on the Social Robotics Workshop. He and other collaborators presented results from a series of workshops that aimed to raise interest among female middle school and high school students to pursue coursework and careers in computer science.

Webb explained that girls self-reported significantly lower interest in science and technology compared to that of boys prior to their involvement with the workshop.

After their exposure to the workshop, both the boys and girls’ interest in computer science increased.

In particular, the girls’ interest matched the boys’ interest in computing.

“This workshop is able to neutralize the bias that exists during this crucial middle school period.

“We know that in middle and high school, if you are a female, as soon as you develop an aptitude for a subject like math or computer science, you get pushed towards other fields like psychology,” Webb noted.

He affirmed, “We are confident that our workshop acts as an equalizer over a short time.”

However, Webb does not know the exact longitudinal effect of the workshop.

Therefore, Nunziato, Sanford and Isaac sought to expand the Social Robotics Workshop to produce long-term results.

Nunziato explained, “The Social Robotics Workshop was a one-time deal. Students were only introduced to robotics. However, we want to extend beyond that and actually teach students how to program.”

The after-school program is in its early stages of planning. The curriculum for the program has yet to be developed, but Nunziato, Sanford and Isaac have a clear vision for their project.

The main aim of the program will be to empower underprivileged middle school girls, who are at the point in their educations where their confidence in computer science drops, to continue pursuing computer science.

Nunziato, Sanford, Isaac and other ACM-W members will work to design the curriculum, as well as become mentors to middle school students.

They will work with the Kenney Community Center to hold an after-school activity for 15 to 20 students once a week during the spring term.

They have advertised the program to five to six local middle schools.

Nunziato added, “We hope to draw students by holding the program at Union. Students will be excited at the prospect of coming to Union because they feel proud that they can attend a class at a college.”

Webb asserted that Nunziato, Sanford and Isaac are “shining examples of how Union’s Computer Science Department has made a conscious choice to increase diversity.”

Nunziato shared that she originally majored in biology and was assigned a work-study position that involved dealing with computers.

“It was pure luck that I became a computer science major. My boss said that I was good at working with computers and suggested that I take a computer science course. I took a class with Professor Webb and I enjoyed it. Then, I kept taking more courses and changed my major.”

Sanford also shared her thoughts on being a female pursuing a computer science degree. “A lot of women don’t realize that they can do something technical. I used to hate technology, but now I love it. Computer science isn’t about being a genius. It’s about logical thinking.”

Isaac added that she encourages all of her friends, as well as the rest of the Union community, to take a computer science course.

“Computer science is applicable to all majors. At this day and age, you will always use technology,” she asserted.

Professor Webb shared, “The current introductory courses for computer science are specifically designed to encourage more students to take the first step to try out the field.”

There has been an increase in the amount of female students at Union who have a major and minor in computer science.  “It’s important to diversify the field of computer science. Through our program, we hope that middle school students will see that socioeconomic background and gender should not play a role in developing an interest in technology,” concluded Nunziato.

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