HMC Sponsors Online Mentoring Program for Women in STEM Fields

Harvey Mudd College will launch an online mentoring program to connect undergraduates with women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

Women in Technology Sharing Online, or WitsOn, is a joint project by HMC and Piazza, an online classroom tool that allows students to post questions and receive answers from other users.

Students in STEM programs at colleges across the country will use WitsOn to ask questions to female mentors through Piazza. 

WitsOn’s website states, “All mentors have faced the challenge of balancing their careers with other commitments, including personal life, family, faith, and community. Since we know that no single path will suit everyone, the WitsOn format encourages students to ask probing and difficult questions.”

The program will feature a series of lead mentors who dedicate one hour each day to being online and answering students’ questions through text and videos. It is open to both female and male students, although it is designed especially for women. 

The mentors include prominent women like Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel to space; Julie Larson-Green, a corporate vice president at Microsoft; Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology officer; and Jacqueline Barton, the chairwoman of the chemistry department at the California Institute of Technology.

HMC President Maria Klawe said that Sooja Pankar, the founder of Piazza, had the original idea for WitsOn. 

As a female computer science student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Pankar discovered that she was in a small minority.

Klawe, who communicated with Pankar extensively, said that Pankar “felt as though she would have received an entirely superior education if she had been a man.”

Pankar was eager to establish the program, but her pregnancy prevented her from pursuing the project. Klawe then stepped in to involve HMC. 

“We came to [Piazza] and said, ‘We’ll do the program through Mudd. We’ll take on finding mentors and approaching schools,’” Klawe said. “You could just see them decompress.” 

Klawe soon began contacting other colleges to gauge interest.  

“I’ve never been involved with something with this much interest,” she said. “Not a single place said no. Sometimes you get very little interest, sometimes you get a lot of interest, but never on this scale.”

The program had 505 mentors and 12,000 students enrolled as of Sept. 26. It will begin Oct. 1 and run for six weeks. 

According to WitsOn’s website, the program could even help participants find jobs. 

“We will do our best to connect students who are interested in positions with mentors’ organizations that have positions to fill,” it says. 

Klawe, who earned a PhD in mathematics from the University of Alberta in 1977, has experience as a woman in a STEM field.  

Since coming to HMC in 2006, she has focused on increasing female presence at the school. When she became president, women constituted about 30 percent of HMC’s student body. Now, 42 percent of HMC students are women. 

A similar transformation has taken place in the Computer Science Department, where Klawe and the department’s faculty have restructured the program to encourage women to pursue computer science. 

Klawe said that less-experienced students, many of whom were women, were becoming discouraged in computer science classes because the classes were full of students who were already highly experienced.

To address this, Klawe and the computer science faculty broke the classes into two sections: “gold” for the newcomers and “black” for those with a background in programming, a change that led to the increase in female computer science majors at HMC. 

HMC also takes all of its female computer science majors to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, held in Baltimore this year.  

Despite HMC’s efforts to encourage women to pursue STEM fields, some students still voice concerns over the treatment of women in male-dominated fields, especially in the classroom.

“It’s fairly common for my ideas to be disregarded by male students in class, mainly because of my gender,” Alanna Weisberg HM ’14 said. 

Still, Weisberg said that seeing successful women in STEM careers is a boost for confidence, and she sees benefits in the WitsOn program.

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