James Madison University

NEW COLLEGES FORMED A plan to reorganize the College of Integrated Science and Technology into two colleges took effect July 1, 2012. The new colleges are the College of Health and Behavioral Studies and the College of Integrated Science and Engineering.

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A Duke Visits the White House – Part 2

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: January 25, 2012

It’s not every day that a JMU student gets an invitation to the White House, or receives presidential recognition for acting as a “Champion of Change” in their field of study.

But on Dec. 9, sophomore computer science major Marissa Halpert entered the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share perspectives on promoting gender equity in technology and computing.

The White House Champions of Change event was part of President Obama’s initiative to “shine a spotlight on extraordinary Americans” and their contributions to various issues. The focus of the week was women and girls in science, technology, math and engineering, to coincide with Computer Science Education week (Dec. 4-11). The individuals honored included professors and professionals from across the country, and the notable guest list included members of the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

“It was an awesome event!” Halpert said. “They recognized me and the other 5 winners that were there.” She attended as a 2010 recipient of the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing, to recognize her personal achievements and her work to encourage other girls in STEM subjects.

“This award is harder to get than getting into Harvard these days,” said panel speaker Avis Yates Rivers, a board member of NCWIT and CEO of her own company. “It has become the jewel at the high school level for girls who are in computer science. Every year the number of applicants continues to grow, [and] we’re up to 1,200 applications this year.”

Halpert was one of six past recipients of this award selected by Ruthe Farmer, NCWIT’s director of strategic initiatives.

“She exemplifies the caliber of young women in the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing program, and is a great role model for other young women interested in the field,” Farmer said. Halpert stayed involved with the program’s outreach efforts and since the award she “has become a strong spokesperson for the program, and has been instrumental in establishing a regional Aspirations Award for the Virginia/DC area, [and] has helped us spread the program nationwide,” Farmer said. 

Halpert is an excellent spokeswoman for the field because of her experience and enthusiasm, and especially because of her gender.

“Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs,” according to an August 2011 report from U.S. Commerce Department. This hasn’t changed in the past decade despite the influx of women enrolling in colleges and joining the workforce, and the number of girls pursuing STEM bachelor’s degrees is disproportionately low.

Addressing this problem was the focus of the White House panel discussion, where speakers included Dr. John P. Holdren, assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren expressed the president’s commitment to removing obstacles that force women to choose between science careers and having a family. But his statistics showed that women and girls still find themselves underrepresented in STEM fields. They comprise 10% of tenured university faculty, although they make up 41% of doctoral degree recipients.

“In order to keep America ahead of the global pack, that’s not enough anymore,” Holdren said. Economists attribute over half the nation’s economic growth since World War II to scientific innovation, but “we simply cannot as a nation expect to maintain…that stream of new and different ideas if we don’t fully open that process to the half of the U.S. population that is women and girls. Ultimately a nation’s scientific, technological and engineering enterprise can only be as diverse and counterintuitive and unconventional, and therefore successful, as the diversity of individuals who make up that enterprise.”

The panel discussion moderator was Dr. Rebecca Blank, an economist and the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce. She had previously published a report about the gender gap in STEM, and one of her findings was that women have a higher share of officers in the Marine Corp. than they have among academic economists. Discussion topics included cultural competency in the classroom, and ways a computer science professor can “teach to girls” by drafting assignments that solve peoples’ problems.

Along these lines JMU received a shout out from the U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, who described how the university “has its own experiment running, because they have a traditional engineering school but then they created essentially a new model of learning which is problem-based. They found in their research that women and minorities performed far better in STEM fields when they had this sort of problem-based approach.”

Part of Halpert’s contribution to JMU’s Computer Science program is to help balance out the numbers. She is a member of the recently formed Woman in Technology club that allows likeminded majors to interact socially, and brings in women speakers from technology-related fields.

Dr. Sharon Simmons, head of the Computer Science Department, commended Halpert for serving as a role model for prospective female students through outreach programs like JMU Open House and CHOICES. This semester Computer Science enrolled 48 female students in the undergraduate program and 8 in the graduate program, and Simmons is one of two female faculty members. Both are involved in attracting prospective female majors, and the department participates in community programs like FIRST Lego League for middle and high school students.

“The Computer Science program at JMU encourages and supports women to pursue a degree in Computer Science at different levels,” Simmons said. “Marissa also sends a strong message to JMU students that women are successful in the CS program and CS welcomes and recognizes women.”