ExploreCSR Introduces Female Students to the World of Computer Science Research

In most university computer science classes, women are a minority. But at last weekend’s exploreCSR workshop at California State University Long Beach, the opposite was true.

The three-day workshop, supported by a $35,000 grant from Google, drew about 50 students from universities throughout Southern California, including Fullerton, Long Beach, Pomona, and San Diego in the California State University system, and Irvine and San Diego in the University of California system. All but three were women.

“When it comes to STEM, especially computer science, there is a huge under-representation of minorities, especially women,” said workshop chair Shadnaz Asgari, an associate professor in CSULB’s Computer Engineering and Computer Science Department and also chair of the Biomedical Engineering Department.

The result of nine months of planning, the workshop involved computer science faculty from CSULB, UC Irvine, and UC San Diego, as well as Google mentors and PhD students.

Attendees chose from among nine faculty-led research projects, spanning the areas of artificial intelligence, computer reasoning, computer science education, deep learning, human-computer interaction, robotics, smart cities, sustainable agriculture, and telemetry.

There was time scheduled to hear advice from role models Anahita Shayesteh, senior staff engineer at Samsung; Kristina Winbladh Nasr, technical program manager at Google; and Constance Steinkuehler, professor of informatics at UC Irvine. And time to network and socialize with other attendees.

But the majority of the three days was spent working with teammates on the intensive research projects.

Before the workshop, CSULB computer science sophomores Nora Koirala and Jainee Shaw said they’d never considered a career in computer science research. “I didn’t know anything about research,” said Shaw. “The workshop made me think it might be an option.”

Much study has gone into the question of why fewer women study computer science. And encouraging more women to study computer science has been an ongoing effort in the tech industry and academia. Women earned fewer than one-fifth of computer science undergraduate degrees and about one-quarter of computer science master’s degrees in 2016-17, according to the Computing Research Association’s Taulbee Survey.

“There are various reasons,” said Asgari. “This is not because we are not capable. Women are performing on par with males.”

Asgari told attendees that she has been in professional settings where men vastly outnumber women. “It has happened to me too—and it still sometimes happens,” she said, adding that it takes courage to be a minority. “Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go.”

Google software engineer and CSULB alumni Kristina Winbladh Nasr with CSULB Professor Alvaro Monge, who helped Nasr on her career path by suggesting she submit her research to a journal.

Nasr, who graduated from CSULB with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2004, shared her career trajectory, which she compared to a colorful wavy line. Growing up in Sweden, she knew she wanted to pursue science, but after trying chemical engineering, decided it wasn’t for her.

Her parents, both computer scientists, gave her a book about the programming language Java, and the rest is history. “I fell in love with coding and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.

Arriving in California, she attended community college for one year before enrolling at CSULB. A pivotal moment came when CSULB Professor Alvaro Monge suggested she submit her independent study class research to a journal and the paper was accepted.

After spending a year working at a robotics lab in Sweden after graduation, Nasr was admitted to the software engineering PhD program at UC Irvine. Five years later, she had earned her doctorate.

Besides teaching her to build stronger arguments, Nasr said pursuing a doctorate was a confidence builder. “Getting through something difficult gives you the confidence that you can get through difficult problems,” she said.

She moved to the East Coast with her husband and infant to take a job as an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. After three years, she left academia for a director position at media analytics company comScore.

Then, missing research, she applied for a technical program manager position at Google in Irvine. “After some gruesome interviews, I got the job,” Nasr said. She recently switched from program manager to software engineer.

“To me, it’s about making a difference through technology,” she said “Whatever it is that you’re interested in, there’s probably a computer science research interest. You just have to figure out what’s important to you.”

UCI Professor Constance Steinkuehler shared how she went from hanging out at arcades and battling boys for the Atari joystick to studying applied math and being the only woman in her department “with a passion for fashion and being super-femmey.”

She graduated from University of Missouri Columbia with bachelor’s degrees in English, math, and religious studies, avoiding computer science because she didn’t know much about it. While studying educational psychology in graduate school, she began using data to frame arguments, and turned to chat rooms as a research tool. Then while pursuing a doctorate in curriculum and instruction studies, her advisor James Paul Gee urged her to study massively multiplayer online games.

“I never in a million years thought I’d be in technology,” said Steinkuehler,  who is not only an accomplished “siege princess,” but served as a senior policy analyst in President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

As someone who studied games, she attended the notoriously booth-babe-heavy E3 trade show and saw female colleagues leave gaming after women were threatened with rape and death during 2014’s Gamergate. But Steinkuehler said Gamergate ultimately had the reverse effect: inspiring more women to get into gaming.

The three-day workshop was one of 15 workshops Google supported nationwide. The workshop is based on a program at Carnegie Mellon University, said UC Irvine Professor Debra Richardson.