Denice Denton

Meet Dr. Colleen Lewis, Our 2016 Denice Denton Emerging Leader ABIE Award Winner

This year’s winner of the Denice Denton Emerging Leader ABIE Award, recognizing a junior faculty member for high-quality research and significant positive impact on diversity, is Dr. Colleen Lewis. Colleen is a professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College who specializes in computer science education. Colleen is passionate about broadening participation in computer science as one strategy she can use to fight inequity and injustice, and this goal drives her teaching, research and service at Harvey Mudd College.

We caught up with Colleen for a Q&A. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the impact of CS teachings in universities on underrepresented groups. What are your ideas for changing the way CS is taught, making it more accessible?

To create inclusive classrooms, I think it is important to understand the cultural and structural barriers that exist for students at the college level. For anyone who doesn’t fit the cultural stereotype of a computer scientist, they are likely to feel that they don’t belong. These messages can come from faculty, fellow students or even loved ones. These messages are sometimes called microaggressions, however from my experience they can vary from micro to macro. To create inclusive spaces, we need to help microaggressors understand the potential impact of their actions and identify when their words or actions could constitute a microaggression.

We also have to understand the structural barriers at colleges, such as having expectations of pre-college experience with computer science. Sometimes, having pre-college experience helps students feel like they belong in the major, which is a cultural barrier. Additionally, without pre-college experience students may have to work harder, get lower grades or be prevented from majoring in CS because of competitive admissions processes. Pre-college experience is unevenly distributed by race, class, and gender – so identifying and removing structural barriers is important for broadening participation in computing.

Tell me about your decision to leave Berkeley for industry and then return. What was your experience like working in the tech industry?

After I graduated from Berkeley with a BS in electrical engineering and computer science, I worked in industry as a software engineer. Generally, I loved it. I think writing code on a team is fun. One of the places I worked was LeapFrog, making educational games. It was really exciting to work at a company where everyone is passionate about education, and getting to work with artists, game designers and audio engineers. Our engineering team was made up of about 50% women, and my bosses were exceptional. This experience was really important for providing me a model of leadership and mentorship that I sought to emulate. Before working at LeapFrog, I had more typical experiences as a woman in tech.

When I was working, I was always looking for opportunities to teach computer science. I put an advertisement in the local Girl Scout newsletter to find teaching opportunities. Like many women, Girl Scouts had played an important part in my life and I was excited for the opportunity to give back. While working at LeapFrog I applied to grad school (for the second time, actually) and got into Berkeley. It allowed me to keep working at LeapFrog part time while starting a Ph.D. program in education and a MS in Computer Science. I originally planned to go to grad school to get the credentials I needed to teach computer science, but in the end, I fell in love with CS education research.

How has the tech industry changed since you left?

When I was in grad school I observed a new cultural development in CS. The stereotype used to be that CS was only for nerdy White and Asian men, but when I was in grad school there started to be a new identity of a computer scientist, called the “brogrammer.” It was fascinating to see how undergraduate men at Berkeley pushed back against the nerd stereotype, but the new stereotype didn’t seem much more inclusive. Instead of being nerdy, it appeared you needed to embrace a form of hypermasculinity. This expansion of the stereotype of a computer scientist has made the culture even less welcoming for folks who don’t match the stereotype.

Tell me about your learning process. How has it helped you succeed?

I get a lot of support for my learning and work from others. In college, I met Irene, who made us a schedule for when we’d do each homework assignment, attend different office hours and study for exams. She was a great person to think and learn with, but most importantly, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done as well without her helping to structure our learning. In grad school, I met Cynthia. As a professor, Cynthia helps me structure my time, face stressful tasks and keep myself motivated. We sometimes Skype for hours, each working on our own work – and checking in occasionally to see how the other person is doing. I think it is important to feel like you’re not alone and that you have the support of others.

What technology trend are you most excited about personally?

I really don’t like technology or computers that much. I’m not kidding. I really like understanding (and teaching) how computers and computer systems work, but I think using technology isn’t that fun. Don’t get me wrong, I like that I can stream videos, track my steps, and stay in contact with loved ones, but it is more that I like the thing that technology enables. I don’t particularly like the technology itself.

What is your advice to young women entering tech who have been told or feel that they don’t belong or “fit” in the tech industry?

I don’t think that there is a one-size-fits-all mode of advice for dealing with hostile environments. Sometimes you should fight, sometimes you should just try to get through it. I can share what has worked for me, but that might not work for others because of their context, their personality or the ways in which others perceive and interact with them. Often people will say “find a mentor” – I think this is good advice, but a little tricky to execute. To make this easier for myself, I’ve redefined mentor. Mentors don’t need to know that they’re your mentor. I consider a mentor to be anyone who wouldn’t be surprised if I asked them a question. You don’t have to formally ask someone to be your mentor – you just have to ask them questions! Eventually they might think of you as their mentee, but even if they don’t, most importantly you’ll need support and help along the way and connecting with people by asking them questions can be a great way to get this.

Meet Colleen at Booth #2800 (Harvey Mudd College and CSTeaching during the Expo.