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Dr. Jan Cuny: National Science Foundation (NSF) Program Officer, Award-winning Research Scientist shares her insights into increasing participation and attracting diversity into computing and STEM disciplines

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Jan Cuny.

Dr. Jan CunySince 2004, Jan Cuny has been a Program Officer at the National Science Foundation, heading the Broadening Participation in Computing Initiative and the CS 10K Project. Before coming to NSF, she was a faculty member in Computer Science at Purdue University, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Oregon.

Jan has been involved in efforts to increase the participation of women in computing research for many years. She was a long time member of the Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women (CRA-W), serving among other activities as a CRA-W co-chair, a mentor in their Distributed Mentoring Program, and a lead on their Academic Career Mentoring Workshop, Grad Cohort, and Cohort for Associated Professors projects. She was also a member of the Advisory Board for Anita Borg Institute for Woman and Technology, the Leadership team of the National Center for Women in Technology, and the Executive Committee of the Coalition to Diversify Computing. She was Program Chair of the 2004 Grace Hopper Conference and the General Chair of the 2006 conference.

For her efforts with underserved populations, she is a recipient of one of the 2006 ACM President's Award, the 2007 CRA A. Nico Habermann Award, and the 2009 Anita Borg Institute's Woman of Vision Award for Social Impact.

Jan is also a mother and grandmother and court appointed advocate for children in the foster care system.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:46: Jan shares a typical week and month in her schedule including activities, outcomes and lessons learned.
"....I'm a Program Officer at the National Science Foundation....Processing awards and managing the program is only a small part of what I do....I'm trying to build a national community around issues that our programs are addressing - getting more undergraduate and graduate degrees in computing, with an emphasis on students from underrepresented groups.....I try to align our efforts with government agencies and industry with the focus of always moving a common STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) agenda forward...."

:05:43: What can you tell us about yourself that few know?
"....I'm a fairly shy person...."

:06:20: What were the biggest three challenges in your career and how did you overcome them?
"...Lack of confidence....I mostly overcame it by being very stubborn....Having children and trying to get tenure at the same time....Not sure how we did it but we had lots of energy....My biggest challenge now is to get the people who could make a difference on the issues that I'm working on to take these issues seriously...I'm not sure not sure how I'll overcome these challenges other than to work on it relentlessly...."

:10:38: What are the milestones in your life and why?
"....Going to Princeton during the first year of coeducation....Adopting older, mixed race children has really opened my eyes to the struggles that many people have...."

:12:26: Can you tell us more about your past work with the Anita Borg Institute for Woman and Technology?
"....At the beginning, I was very skeptical of their plans to start a conference just for women in technology and to start the institute. Anita Borg and Telle Whitney were so enthusiastic and energized by the idea that it was hard to remain on the outside. The conference and institute that they started has grown enormously and now represents one of the key players in bringing and retaining women in computing...."

:14:46: What are the goals of the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT)?
"....NCWIT aims to change the face of computing....Much of the work on gender issues in computing either comes through or contributes to the activities of NCWIT. They rally the community and keep the issues front and center...."

:16:50: Can you provide background and then tell us more about your past work with the Grace Hopper Conference?
"....When I went to the first one there were only a few hundred women. I had never been in a room with so many women who were interested in technology and the energy, enthusiasm and excitement were overwhelming....Last year there were almost 2000 and it continues to grow every time. Great talks on research, lots of career development talks for students and young professionals - even some for us old timers - and lots and lots of networking. It gives women the message that they belong in this field. It gives them the connections they need to be successful. It's inspiring...."

:20:44: Can you provide background on the status of IT enrollments and why there is a need to increase interest?
"....IT innovation and technology have been the driver of our economy. It will lead the global economy and we need to have a highly trained IT workforce to remain competitive. There's a myth that there are no good jobs left in computing, that the dot com bust has wiped them out, that they have all been off-shored. The truth is that there are more people employed in IT now then there were at the height of the dot com era. The jobs that have been off-shored are a relatively small portion of the low end jobs and there is opportunity and will be much more as we come out this recession for people with the right skill set...."

:24:11: What are the challenges in teaching computing in high schools and how can this be best addressed?
"....Computing is not well taught in many US high schools....There are courses in computing in most schools but in many cases, we teach only basic literacy. They create students who can use computing but they don't create students who can really understand computational problems and how computation is applied to problems, how to use computation and how to bend it to their needs. Students have no opportunity to take rigorous computer science courses....The CS 10K Project aims to change that by creating a new high school curriculum and getting that curriculum taught by 10,000 well-trained teachers in 10,000 schools by 2015...."

:31:36: How are women, minorities and persons with disabilities represented in computing and what can be done to increase their representation?
"....Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities (who are 70% of the population) are significantly underrepresented in computing. The programs that we run called 'Broadening Participation in Computing' run programs from middle school all the way through graduate faculty range. We look at engaging students and look at ways to entice them into computing....It's really important that once you've got the kids really engaged in computing that you have a really good set of courses for them so that they can take that engagement and go further with it....We also have to understand that there are issues for each of these underrepresented groups that we are going to have to deal with...."

:34:57: What more can be done to increase participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines?
"....The one initiative that I'm most involved in is National Lab Day....We define "lab" quite generally to be anywhere that hands-on lessons in science, technology, engineering, math and computer science can be designed to happen. Right now our goal is to connect teachers with a local community of support....We are particularly interested in getting STEM based professionals, like scientists, engineers, technologist, mathematicians into the classrooms to work with the students...."

:38:44: Is Computer Science Education Week going to be an annual event?
"....Computer Science Education Week was declared by Congress and there was a lot of publicity that went out around computer science and the issues and we are hoping to capitalize on that....I think Computer Science Education Week will help to focus legislative and academic attention on what's happening in the schools and how we need to change that...."

:39:55: We talked about a lot of areas today. What are the best resources for learning more about the issues we discussed?
"....NCWIT - the National Center for women and Information Technology ( library resources on under-representation ( involved:"

:41:36: What lessons can you share from your other roles and past experiences?
"....I'm not sure I have lessons for other people but I have lessons for me. I am happiest when I am involved in lots of different things. I most like to work on things that I see as part of some larger picture; education, equity issues. I like to tackle things that are hard enough to require a lot of focus and concentration but I burn out frequently and need to be able to switch gears...."

:43:02: You are quite engaged in the community through volunteer roles. Can you describe why you contribute and if others should engage?
"...I have always enjoyed being and working with kids. I've tutored and mentored kids since I was an undergraduate. I led a brownie troop while I was a graduate student and another when I was a new faculty member....We adopted all of our kids as older children who had been in the foster care system and I'd become quite sympathetic to the plight of kids who are in that system. So I became a CASA - court appointed special advocate - and I've been doing that for 11 years...."

:45:57: What five top lessons can your share from the projects you have worked on?
"....Do something that contributes to something that matters to you....Total successes are rare. You work towards big goals and try to do the best you can.....Easier to garner support for a big bold idea than a small idea....Build a big network...."

:48:08: What do you see as the top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?
"....Our biggest challenge and I'll leave it at one: How are we going to mobilize the talent and creativity of the world's population to solve the really big problems we're facing?...How are we going to educate people?...."

:49:29: If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....'How does one get involved?'...."

:49:57: Please provide your quick comments on the IFIP IP3 program on professionalizing the profession? [].
"....As with any profession you need to be recognized and held to standards of professionals. Computing is ubiquitous across society and the standards to which computer scientists and IT professionals should be held are really high....The more important technology becomes to us, the more we are going to need to make sure that the technology is built and delivered to the highest standards. I think the idea of having professional standards for IT people is terrific and necessary...."