Women in science and technology celebrated at Big Dream screening

“I think it’s important that people send out the message that this is something girls can do too.”

A documentary screening last weekend provided a space for women to share their experiences and to encourage more women to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

On Saturday afternoon, a documentary called Big Dream brought out a crowd that nearly filled the 120-seat auditorium in Dalhousie University’s computer science building. The documentary is about seven women across the globe who are pursuing careers in STEM.

The screening was hosted by WISEatlantic, Mount Saint Vincent University, Atlantic Association for Research in the Mathematical Sciences and Dalhousie’s Faculty of Computer Science.

The event was an oddity in the technology community because women made up at least half the crowd. Usually there’s only three or four women at technology events, says Emily Boucher, who directs research and marketing at Digital Nova Scotia.

Women are drastically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). For example, during the 2013-14 school year in Nova Scotia, only 22 per cent of architecture and engineering students were women. Similarly, only 27 per cent of students in mathematics, computer science and information sciences were women, according to the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission.

Lack of role models

Nur Zincir-Heywood, a computer science professor at Dalhousie, says that a reason women are so underrepresented is that there aren’t many women role models in STEM fields.

“This is where the misunderstanding starts because if there’s no role models, [women] don’t know exactly what to expect, what’s going to happen, or what it looks like,” says Zincir-Heywood.

“[Women] shouldn’t feel shy to go, talk, and ask. And we, the women in the STEM fields, should do our part and be accessible so both sides can find each other. We can take it from there.”

The importance of early development

Zincir-Heywood says that one of the biggest obstacles is that often women don’t view entering STEM as an option because there aren’t many corresponding subjects in junior high or high school.

Early engagement with STEM subjects is a huge factor in attracting women to these areas. A WISEatlantic survey from 2014 found that junior high students in STEM activities were 2.7 times more likely to consider a STEM career.

The WISEatlantic survey explores the career interests of junior high students.
The WISEatlantic survey compares the career interests of girls and boys in junior high (Courtesy of WISEaltantic).

Susana Somerton is a Grade 7 student who came to the documentary screening event. She is interested in technology and has attended robotics camps.

“At the camps I’ve gone to, I’ve been maybe one of three girls out of a 20-person camp so I think it’s important that people send out the message that this is something girls can do too,” says Somerton.

Dalhousie students also spoke about how their early exposure to science and technology led them to pursue degrees in STEM.

Mimi Cahill, a forth-year informatics student, recalled going to workshops about technology when she was eight years old. These workshops sparked her interest in entering the technology field a decade later.

“I think that was partially because I had such a good experience when I was young and told, ‘You can do this. Try it.’ It was an inclusive environment and then I decided that I’m going to do this, I can do this,” says Cahill.

Cahill says that people need to know that they don’t need a solid background in computers and technology before they begin their degree. She bought her first laptop the first week of university classes.

“Don’t expect that you need any prior knowledge. You can start fresh, like me, and you’ll be fine. You don’t need to know anything before, just a little math,” Cahill says.

 

Discouragement

Women spoke of discouragement as another barrier in STEM.

Susan Grandy is a software engineer for an American company but is based in Nova Scotia. She graduated from Dalhousie’s computer science program in 2010. Since then, her work has brought her to Seattle and India.

“Something someone said to me, which made me discouraged and lose my confidence, was that girls didn’t think the same way and therefore I wouldn’t make it through. What I’ve come to realize is that we have something unique to offer. We may not think identically but that’s actually a good thing,” says Grandy.

To the future

Grandy encourages women entering STEM to be persistent.

“All I can say is keep going because there were times when I thought I couldn’t do it  but there’s tutors and other things. The resources are there and I found the profs would help you whenever you needed help and just keep going,” Grandy says.

Brittany Kelly is the vice-president of Dalhousie’s Women in Technology Society (WiTS). She is in her last year of the computer science program at Dalhousie. She encourages women to look beyond the stereotypes of STEM.

“There’s a lot of opportunities to go and talk to people, go to conferences, and really get involved. There’s all sort of societies and a lot of the people in the different fields are very welcoming and everyone just wants to see everyone else succeed,” says Kelly.

CS Day encourages students to consider a degree in computer science

The Dalhousie Computer Science department opens its doors to junior high and high school students for a full-day of workshops and speeches in hopes of encouraging them to consider a degree in computer sciences.

A large group of students from across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick gather at the Goldberg Computer Science Building with one question lingering in each of their minds: do I want to be a computer scientist?

“Anyone who signed up for the GEM Lab, we’re going to the Mona Campbell building, so you’ll be following me,” shouted a volunteer to the group. About a quarter of the group stands up and follows the volunteer, hoping that the lab would get them one step closer to the answer that brought them here today.

Students and their parents trying on Oculus Rifts, a virtual reality headset. (Photo: Teri Boates)
Students and their parents trying on Oculus Rifts, a virtual reality headset. (Photo: Teri Boates)

The Dalhousie Computer Science department held its annual Computer Science Day, or CS Day, on Feb.28. CS Day is a free event open to junior high and high school students who are interested in computer sciences. The event allows students to explore different aspects of a degree in computer science and gives their parents the opportunity to hear from alumni and academic advisers.

“CS Day is kind of our initiative to get in touch with the high school students,” said André Tremblay, a fourth-year computer science student and volunteer.

“We try to get them interested in computer science and show them what we do here as a degree, what we do in the program and see if that’s something that would interest them and give them a chance to ask us some questions.”

Upon registration, students were able to sign up for two out of the four available workshops including:

  • a visit to the GEM Lab which allowed students hands-on experience with interactive computers and devices
  • a session on network security
  • a scavenger hunt engaging students with smartphones and augmented reality
  • a robotics lab where students had the opportunity to learn how to fly a drone.

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“It gives them the opportunity to go into different research labs and see what [computer science students] actually do,” Michael Shepherd, the dean of computer science, said.

“Too many young people have the idea that in computer science you’re just a programmer. You sit in a cubicle and you push code all day and that’s absolutely not the case.”

Approximately 60 students and 25 parents registered for the event. Along with the workshops, attendees were able to hear speeches from alumni, professors and the dean. Attendees were also taken on a campus tour and ate at residence meal halls.

“We look at it as an opportunity to promote the field of computer science and our two degrees: computer science and informatics, and really help parents understand what its all about,” said Allison Kinecade, alumni communications officer in charge of enrollment and recruitment.

“It’s an opportunity to try out a couple sessions and see whether it may match a passion that they have.”

Kinecade said that the robotics session continues to be a favourite among the students, because of the variety of different robots made available each year. CS Day tries to offer at least one session involving human interaction every year, but this year students who registered to visit the GEM Lab were taken to the Mona Campbell Building to see many different demonstrations of human-computer interaction. This year was also the first year to feature a scavenger hunt.

“It’s definitely a growing field and it’s definitely interesting,” said Tremblay.

“The goal is just to encourage people to take a look at it, even if they don’t come to Dalhousie; to make them consider looking into it a bit more, or even consider it to be fun.”