WASHINGTON, PA (May 9, 2018)—While the world of STEM careers may have originally been a boys’ club, more and more women are pursuing their passions and making an impact in these fields, with many getting their education right here at Washington & Jefferson College (W&J)! In honor of the strong, intelligent women who are defying gender stereotypes in the workplace, we’re highlighting a few of our own in a new series on W&J Women in STEM.
Amanda Holland-Minkley, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Computing and Information Studies (CIS). She teaches courses in programming, game development, security, artificial intelligence, and other computer science topics. Her current interests include analysis of interfaces and artifacts through the use of eye tracking technology and research into effective pedagogy for undergraduate computing education.
We asked Dr. Holland-Minkley about her work in computing and her path to W&J. Check out what she had to say!
How did you become interested/involved in your field of study?
I’ve always liked science and went to college intending to be a physics major, but I got talked into taking a compilers course my sophomore year of college (my advisor told me they’d never had a woman take the course and I took the bait). I was hooked on the combination of mathematical theory and engineering implementation that comes together in computer science and switched my major. My senior year of college, I had the opportunity to do an honors project on artificial intelligence and I’ve continued doing AI research since then, particularly focusing on natural language processing. It’s been an exciting discipline to be in, because new techniques and results are coming out nearly every day, and you can see how it is changing our world. Though, those changes are also a sobering reminder of the responsibilities scientists have to society in the research they pursue.
Who are some of your role models or inspirations in the field?
Computer science (CS) is still a relatively young field, so most of my role models have been the women I’ve seen progressing through their career a few steps ahead of me – classmates in college or graduate school who made it through comps and defenses. I was also fortunate enough to have an inspiring mentor in Dr. Lillian Lee at Cornell. She’s done amazing work in natural language processing, but I was also able to TA her course for freshmen engineering students designed to introduce foundational principles of CS without programming. It was a totally different type of computing course than I’d ever taken and talking to her about how she designed the course has shaped my own teaching.
What challenges do women face in your field? What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Women are not just underrepresented in CS, but women are becoming increasingly underrepresented. If you go back to the mid-80s, the proportion of women in CS was about the same as in mathematics. But at the same time as the tech industry grew, the proportion of women in the field has dropped to lower than any other STEM field except, by some accounts, engineering.
You see some consequences of this play out in recent stories from the tech industry about those who doubt this underrepresentation is even a problem to solve and suggest it is simply reflective of a lack of innate ability or interest on the part of women. In my experience, the women in CS I’ve talked to about this issue have all faced denial of their abilities or of the legitimacy of their interest in the discipline at some point in their studies or career. The effect can be isolating if you don’t have a good network of support around you, and it is a particular challenge given the frequency with which you’re the only woman in a course, on a research team, or in a department. Personally, I’ve found it invaluable to have friends working in other disciplines that I can turn to who can help lend an outside perspective.
Being the only woman in a group also exacerbates some of the gendered patterns one sees across disciplines. There’s often a tendency for women to carry out the logistical upkeep of a group – coordinating meetings, taking notes, keeping people informed or included, and supporting social cohesion. When there’s only one woman, that can all fall on her, and even when she “doesn’t mind,” it can turn out to be a lot of extra work that does not come with a commensurate amount of extra credit. And sometimes, this distribution of work can carry a subtle message that the woman wouldn’t be able to contribute as fully to the technical aspects of the work. I don’t think there’s a good solution here besides wanting everyone – men and women – to be mindful of this tendency.
What made you want to teach others about your field?
I think that computer science is a misunderstood field. It still isn’t taught consistently in high schools and when it is, there is a lot of variation in what is included. Many people think computer science is programming, but programming is just a tool we use to do computer science. I think if more people understood that, we would have a greater diversity of people entering the field. I try to teach courses that show students the types of problems we solve in computer science and the relationship between the problems CS solves and the experiences of people who use technology.
One of my favorite things about teaching computing is the opportunities to connect computer science to other disciplines. In almost all of my courses, I have a mix of majors and non-majors, and there are always great connections that my non-major students help me find between their studies and the CIS content of the course. It’s been a real highlight of my career when I’ve been able to put together students from CIS and other majors to take on interesting projects. These interdisciplinary teams always seem to achieve more impressive results than teams of just computing majors – I’ve had a CIS major and a Sociology major win a research poster competition at a CS conference and a cross-disciplinary team composed of CIS and Biology students win a regional hackathon. These experiences make me passionate about teaching all students, not just CIS students, about computing.
What advice do you have for young women interested in STEM studies?
Don’t be afraid to try things out and fail a little bit. If you are only taking on challenges you know you can master, you’re holding yourself back. Ultimately, the things you can do are more important than the grades you earn. Seek out opportunities to work on projects – with faculty, with classmates, through an internship or REU, or just an idea you’ve come up with yourself—you’ll be surprised how many faculty will support you in trying out your ideas. If you’re interested in computer science, get comfortable messing around with your computer, whether that means trying out some coding tutorials, setting up your own web domain, or replacing the memory. It takes practice to think of your computer as a tool you control rather than a tool that dictates how you should work.
And, regardless of the type of STEM you are interested in, make sure to take some computing courses! Even if you think it isn’t for you, studying STEM increasingly requires developing your computing skills, and you might find out along the way that you enjoy it. Some of my most successful female CIS majors have started out in other science fields before finding their way over to the Tech Center.
This article is part of a larger series on W&J Women in STEM. Get to know some of our other professors: Dr. Alice Lee, Dr. Jennifer Bayline, Dr. Deborah Polvani, Dr. Kelly Weixel, Dr. Faun Doherty, and Dr. Jenny Kline.
About Washington & Jefferson College
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