Joining in: Computer science student participation up fivefold at women in computing conference

group photo of RMCWiC 2018 conference attendees

Is majoring in computer science worth it? How is my classwork used in the real world? What are my career options in this field? Where do I find mentoring and support? I feel alone – is there anyone out there like me?

Students can explore those questions and more at the Rocky Mountain Celebration of Women in Computing (RMCWiC). In November, 30 women students from the Department of Computer Science grabbed the valuable opportunity to attend the biennial conference in Lakewood, CO – five times the participation of just two years ago. Funded by scholarships from the conference, industry, and an anonymous donor, the students joined 200 others at the 2-day event aimed at encouraging the career interests of local women in computing.

Good things come in small packages

While big conferences provide a lot of exposure in one place, smaller regional conferences can offer students the same interactions, greater access to industry representatives, and more personal attention. This is especially helpful to first and second-year students who can feel overwhelmed at super-sized conferences like the Grace Hopper Celebration.

The goal of RMCWiC is to help current and future computing professionals learn, network, and build skill confidence. Divided into tracks for industry professionals, college students and even high school students, this year’s conference featured keynote talks from Kathy Kleiman, founder of the ENIAC Programmers Project, and Andrea Guendelman, co-founder of BeVisible. Faculty and industry lightening talks, workshops, a career fair and more rounded out the event.

“It was remarkable to see the connections,” said computer science academic success coordinator Elisa Cundiff. “The students could draw the connection between their classwork and real-world work in the field. It was exciting to see students connect and form an identity as computer scientists.”

The conference is also an Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Celebration event. ACM Celebrations of Women in Computing are designed to connect technical women who are working and studying within a particular geographical location. These conferences build community, break down feelings of isolation, and often dovetail with student chapters like CSU ACM-W.

A potent influence

Attending the conference was eye-opening for both the students and their supervisors. First-year computer science student Arysa Flores described her experience.

“I majored in English as an incoming freshman because I thought computer science would be too hard for me. Still, I was interested in CS, so I took a class anyway. I joined ACM-W and received a scholarship to attend RMCWiC – and it changed everything for me.

Coming from a more low-tech small town, I was amazed by the advanced technology. I got to fly drones, play a VR game of Fruit Ninja, and learn about cool robots that could follow commands. A panel of women entrepreneurs discussed countless events where their knowledge was tested and questioned. That inspired me to prove people wrong and to even prove myself wrong. I could do this, and I would do this.

Throughout the day, we all built a bond that kept getting stronger as we connected over similar experiences, thoughts, and feelings. The Rocky Mountain Celebration of Women in Computing dramatically changed my outlook on computer science. I will always be incredibly thankful this opportunity appeared at exactly the right moment in my life.”