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Grant to expand NMSU's young women in computing program

Less than 0.5 percent of incoming freshmen in fall 2006 expressed interest in studying computer science and not even half of them were females, according to a national study done by the Computing Research Association. But a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded recently to New Mexico State University's Young Women in Computing program hopes to improve these numbers.

Members of the New Mexico State University Young Women in Computing second summer session display Lego MindStorms robots that they built and programmed during their first week of class.

University student enrollment in computer science across the nation dropped 70 percent between 2000 and 2005 as a result of the "dot-com bust" - a time period when the internet experienced a rise and decline in dot-com stocks.

In an effort to improve upon these statistics, Enrico Pontelli, professor of computer science, and associate professors Inna Pivkina and Karen Villaverde created Young Women in Computing four years ago and since then have received funding to expand the program. Within the last few years, program coordinator Rachel Jensen has also taken on some responsibility and dedicated time to assist growth of the project. Young Women in Computing is a program intended for high school and middle school females who want to learn more about the field of computer science and to generate more interest in technological careers.

"Clearly there is a need to stimulate interest in this field, and women are underrepresented in the computer science major," Pontelli said. He attributes these low (although growing) numbers to a lack of knowledge of how computer sciences can be applied to other fields of study, such as biology or space exploration. With the three-year supplemental grant from the National Science Foundation, the team hopes to expand the program beyond its original five-weeks of summer classes and monthly seminars.

The course is typically held during the second summer session, but with the help of the grant, the team plans to expand the number of courses throughout the academic year and eventually increase the number of activities and featured guest speakers.

Jensen also hopes to portray an image of how computer science studies can relate to a broader scope of disciplines, such as biology and space exploration. Another drawing point of the program is that the courses will be developed to accommodate the dual-credit initiative, which allows high school students to achieve the credit hours they need to graduate from high school and also receive college credit. The high school students enrolled in Women in Computing have had positive experiences and created lasting friendships, Jensen said.

"Before I started (the program) I didn't really know anything about computer science. It really interests me," said Stephanie Garcia, a participant of the first class in 2005 who is now a freshman at NMSU studying computer science. A high school biology teacher alerted her to the summer program and suggested she apply, Garcia said.

"I have a better interest in school now. The program has taught me focus, dedication and confidence," said the 2008 Mayfield High School graduate. She said she enjoyed learning most about robotics and web page design while enrolled in Women in Computing. Other topics covered included animation, computer programming and bioinformatics to name a few.

Over of the next few years Jensen and Pontelli hope to broaden the program's outreach to home school students and the local high schools and middle schools in Las Cruces Public Schools and Gadsden Independent School District. Additional components to the program include club organization, both at the high school level and at NMSU, strengthening the connection with the Women in Technology Club at Dona Ana Community College. The program also assists in training high school and middle school educators in integrating computing into their lesson plans.

For more information or to learn about the application process, contact Jensen at (575) 646-4451.