When she came to Oregon State University to study computer science, Helen Shin struggled to feel at home in a course of study dominated by men. At OSU, female students constitute 20 percent of the College of Engineering, but few choose computer science, Shin says. The scarcity of female role models in the field made Shin doubt herself.
“It kind of became an internalized oppression for myself,” Shin says. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if I should be doing this.’”
Shin’s interest in computer science had singled her out in high school, and doubts from her peers and even her family left Shin wondering whether computer science was right for her.
“My dad thought I should go into elementary school teaching or nursing,” Shin says. “But my mom thought I could do computer science and be more independent.”
So when Shin was awarded a $4,000 Intel-funded Undergraduate Research Opportunities grant to develop a project during the summer following her junior year, she decided to explore the questions about women and computer science that had troubled her for years.
According to Ellen Momsen, director of OSU Women and Minorities in Engineering, the URO program awards at least 50 percent of its grants annually to applicants who are either female or belong to ethnic minorities that are underrepresented in science and engineering fields.
For her project, Shin delved into research about how more women might be attracted to computer science, where young girls can find the female role models in technical fields that Shin lacked in high school and how women pursuing careers in computer science can be made to feel welcome and supported.
Shin read about what is being done to bring women into computer science and kept a blog to record her observations throughout the process. Her hopes of creating a video blog for female computer scientists to share their experiences were dashed because Shin couldn’t find enough women to participate in the project. Despite that, Shin was able to make contact with other women in computer science through her research and attended a conference where she was able to meet them in person and ask about their experiences.
Through her grant Shin was able to reaffirm her passion for computer science and transform her insecurity about the absence of women in open source software development into motivation to encourage young women to achieve their dreams.
“It’s been a really invaluable experience,” Shin says. “I feel more empowered to pursue my academic studies and my career in the industry.”
Enriching the undergraduate experiences of students like Shin is the goal of the URO program. Developed through a partnership between Intel and Semiconductor Research Corporation, the program funds 14 universities across the country with grants to support research among undergraduates studying science and engineering. The goal of the program is to encourage students to remain in science and engineering programs and continue on to graduate school.
To receive a URO grant, students must have a 3.0 GPA and submit a brief application or be recommended by a faculty member. This year, 16 OSU students received URO grants.
In addition to URO grants, Intel funds another undergraduate research program through WME and a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen. Momsen says these programs are valuable resources because they allow students to build strong foundations in science and engineering.
“The more industry support that we can get to provide these opportunities for all students, the better it can be,” Momsen says. “It’s really a powerful program for students. A lot of our students have already published papers by the time they graduate. It really makes them a much more desirable graduate school candidate.”
Taking the boys’ club by storm
For Hannah Adams, a junior in computer science who transferred to OSU last year, undergraduate research was a way to find her place at OSU and gain confidence in computer science.
Adams received a URO grant in January to work with professor Margaret Burnett and a research team to make a scripting program easier for individuals without programming experience to implement. The grant funds Adams’ cost of participation in the project and hourly pay for her work.
Performing research allowed Adams, a new student who didn’t know anyone and felt she lacked a place in her college, to become an active member of a research team and a strong presence in the computer science program.
“Research really opened the door for me,” Adams says. “It introduced me to other people who were doing things similar to what I was doing and was interested in, and being able to work with people so much more advanced than I was really gave me the confidence to talk about what I was doing to my peers.”
Adams says she was intimidated when she began studying at OSU because she was the only woman in many of her classes, and the male students all seemed to have more computer science experience and confidence than her. Now, she doesn’t worry about fitting in, but commits to standing out in a positive way.
Since she has been involved with research, Adams says she can’t go anywhere in Corvallis without running into someone she knows from the college. In class, she no longer worries that her gender is a liability, but instead puts what she considers feminine touches on some of her projects.
“At the end of the day, I need to be comfortable with what I’m doing,” Adams says. “It’s really cool to be actively involved in where industry is going, and because of the research I get a lot of experience in software engineering. I feel like it’s definitely pushed me ahead of my peers.”
Both Shin and Adams are working to draw more young women into computer science by sharing their passion. Shin blended her interest in computer science with her father’s hopes that she would pursue teaching by leading website design classes for visiting grade-school students, where she uses hands-on activities to show her students that computer science can be fun.
Adams works with first-year students as an ambassador at START sessions and reaches out to transfer students who are struggling with the same feeling of isolation she once had. Research, Adams says, completely changed her experience at OSU, and she wants to encourage other students to take advantage of similar opportunities to learn and succeed.
“I am using the skills and opportunities I’ve had to guide others,” Adams says. “I felt so isolated that to turn around and see that other people have felt that way too has been comforting. I have never felt such a strong support system before I got into research.”