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Southwestern Professor Leads Oral History Project

Encouraging more women to enter the field of computer science is among the goals of a project being led by Barbara Boucher Owens, an associate professor of computer science at Southwestern.

This year, only one female student will be graduating from Southwestern University with a degree in computer science. Nationwide, the statistics are pretty much the same: only about 20 percent of students receiving degrees in computer science are women.

Encouraging more women to enter the field of computer science is among the goals of a project being led by Barbara Boucher Owens, an associate professor of computer science at Southwestern.

Owens is working on an oral history project to document the stories of the women who pioneered the field of computer science.

The project began several years ago after a number of papers and books reported alarming trends in the number of students pursing careers in computer science, particularly women.

“We are not getting nearly the number of computer science majors needed to meet the needs our country,” Owens said. “This has to change.”

Shrinking numbers are especially problematic for women, Owens said, because research shows that one of the keys to success for women in computer science is to have the support of other women.

“As fewer women enter the field, there is no one for other women to talk to,” she said.

In 2004, Owens organized a meeting to discuss the problem with colleagues in the Association for Computer Machinery’s Computer Science Education Special Interest Group. Owens has been a member of this group’s board since 1995 and currently serves as its vice chair.

One idea they came up with was to collect oral histories of women who have persevered in the field.

“Role model stories really attract women into fields,” Owens said.

The group got several experts to train them on how to collect oral histories, and Owens has received several grants to fund the project. In 2005, she received a grant from the Sam Taylor Fellowship Fund which helped her purchase the equipment needed to record the stories.

Just recently, she received a $40,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that will help her and her colleagues continue planning the project. Still to be determined, she said, are questions such as how many people to interview and what age range should be covered. She noted that some men also will be interviewed for the project.

“It is important to collect these stories now because many of the pioneers in this field are getting old,” Owens said.

Boucher helped collect the first interview for the project in 2005 with Maria Klawe, the first woman to serve as president of Harvey Mudd College, one of the country’s premier undergraduate colleges for engineering, science and mathematics.

Since then, Owens and her colleagues have collected oral histories from 11 women and three men. Excerpts from some of the interviews are posted online at a temporary Web site Owens set up at http://cs.southwestern.edu/OHProject/.

This semester, students in the computer science capstone class at Southwestern are working on improvements to this Web site. The class is being taught by Vicki Almstrum, a well-known software engineering educator from The University of Texas at Austin who is working with Owens on the oral history project.

After a prototype Web site is in place, Owens and her colleagues plan to find a permanent home for the project.

“We want it to be hosted at a place that is known for having oral history collections, especially ones related to computer science,” Owens said. She said possibilities include the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota or the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

In addition to posting the stories online, Owens hopes to publish a book with selected stories.

She said the task of collecting stories will be ongoing. “History collections never stop,” she said.