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Ohio State tech community opening the door for young women in STEM

A year ago, Anjali Kapoor was a first-year student searching for a comfort zone in the male-dominated field of computer science when she showed up alone at MakeOH/O, a hardware-oriented hackathon at Ohio State.

“I came in pretty nervous,” Kapoor said.

There were about 150 students at MakeOHI/O, an intimidating beehive of wire strippers, soldering irons and an assorted equipment such as oscilloscopes.

Undeterred, Kapoor signed up and joined a team with three males. To her surprise, they encouraged her to be the main coder on their project, an automated greenhouse.

“I was having my ideas and my voice heard,” Kapoor said.

Kapoor’s eyes were opened, too. The Mason, Ohio, native noticed other women at the event, some participating as groups of four.

“It was something that was exciting,” Kapoor said. “I saw that my friends – women in computer science – can form teams and build products together. There’s not a lot of spaces for women to work together.”

Kapoor’s experience was so enjoyable she’s now sponsorship co-leader for MakeOHI/O, being held March 3-4 for the third consecutive year in Knowlton Hall.

Between 150 and 200 students are expected to build projects as teams of two to four in a 24-hour period at MakeOHI/O. Food will be free, and judges will award more than $1,000 in prizes.

“It’s a bonding experience,” said Bettina Bair, an Ohio State senior lecturer in computer science and engineering (CSE). “They work all night, approach obstacles and challenges together, and solve them together. It’s like a camping trip, but it’s all indoors and you don’t have to deal with bugs and leaky tents.”

Tech culture jumps forward 

Like HackOHI/O, a larger software-oriented hackathon held on campus each fall, this year’s third MakeOHI/O is a spin-off from OHI/O, a student-led program founded in 2013 to foster the university’s tech culture.

“For me, OHI/O was an important reason why I stayed in my major and why I stayed in tech,” said Winnie Li, a Microsoft product manager and 2017 Ohio State graduate in CSE.

Keeping female students in STEM through events such as MakeOHI/O is one of several ways Ohio State is trying to diversify the field of electrical and computer engineering. It’s a challenge faced by universities and the work force throughout the nation.

The National Science Foundation found that in 1985, more than 35 percent of computer science majors in the U.S. were women. That number is now 17.9 percent.

Bair said recruitment and retention of women are the main challenges to stemming the drop-off, and both are tied to culture, an issue without one solution.

Discovering solutions

Ohio State is attacking the problem in numerous ways. Betty Lise Anderson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, leads an outreach program to help K-12 students explore engineering. For current students, the university has a Women in Engineering (WiE) program and a chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Women (ACM-W).

“The clubs are definitely making a difference,” said third-year student Courtney Campbell, co-president of the local ACM-W chapter. “Ohio State and ACM-W have worked really hard to make sure all women know they’re supported here. You know there are people behind you, and different events like HackOHI/O and MakeOHI/O help support you.”

Julia Armstrong, CSE director of the OHI/O Informal Learning Program, said 20 percent of the 667 students at the 2017 HackOHI/O were women, a 4 percent improvement from the previous year.

Dana Vantrease, a 2002 Ohio State graduate in CSE, was happily surprised to see so many women when she walked into the Ohio Union’s main ballroom last October to serve as a mentor at HackOHI/O.

“Almost every single table I looked at had at least one woman," said Vantrease, a hardware development engineer with Amazon Web Services. "Things have changed a lot. I still feel like we have a long way to go, but building casual interactions in hackathons builds community.”

The communal feel of HackOHI/O made a strong impression on Emma Wenckowski, who teamed with three other women at last year’s event.

“What has helped me is walking into a room and seeing other women,” said Wenckowski, a freshman from Chicago. “What’s really helping women is other women creating a space where you can find a community instead of having to fit into the boys’ club. It’s about finding a way to make computer science your realm and being OK that we don’t all think the same way.”

Retaining the talent

Besides a cultural shift, Ohio State events such as the upcoming MakeOHI/O offer a unique chance to learn outside a classroom.

“Research has shown women benefit from making the connection between application of technology to the theory behind the technology,” Bair said. “If MakeOHI/O shows there is application for hardware skills, then that is going to help retain them.”

Activities like MakeOHI/O that help retention are one thread in a tapestry of ways Ohio State is trying to close technology’s gender gap.

“MakeOHI/O won’t fix it,” Kapoor said, “but it gives women an opportunity to say, ‘I’m in this field, I belong here, and I can do this.’ That’s definitely a powerful thing.”

written by University Marketing