Richard Newton

Meet Marie desJardins, 2017 Educator ABIE Award Winner

The A. Richard Newton Educator ABIE Award recognizes educators who develop innovative teaching practices and approaches that attract girls and women to computing, engineering, and math. University of Maryland educator Dr. Marie desJardins is this year’s A. Richard Newton Educator ABIE Award winner, and will accept her award as part of the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), October 4–7 in Orlando, Florida.

Marie is a Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering as well as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs of the College of Engineering and Information Technology at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Her commitment to empowering female students extends back to her own college years, when she established the Big Sister peer mentoring program while President of the Women in Computer Science and Engineering organization at University of California, Berkeley. At UMBC, she is an active participant in the Women in Science and Engineering Sponsorship Committee, providing guidance, support, and feedback to female junior faculty as they prepare their tenure packages and navigate the promotion process.

We spoke with Marie recently to talk about the award and the path that brought her here.

What led you to a career in computer science?

I’ve never been a super gadgety, techie person. But I really like computers as problem solvers; we should all be using them to help us do what we’re trained to do.

I was always pretty good at math when I was a kid, and I liked doing puzzles, word games, solving problems. Before the days of computer games, I remember going to the Toronto Science Museum where they had a display of computers with little CRT screens where you could play tic-tac-toe against the computer. I stood there playing it for a long time, and I thought it was amazing that the computer was beating me. That started something in the back of my mind, although I wasn’t consciously thinking, “Oh. I want to figure out how that works.”

Then, in high school, I had the chance to take a couple of community college classes. One was a Fortran programming class where we programmed on punch cards. You would hand in your stack cards, and they’d run it on their mainframe and give you a printout with the output. And I loved that class. I loved the puzzle of it, the trying to figure out how to make the computer do what I wanted it to do. And then, when I went off to college, I was a computer science major from the beginning.

Why did you decide to become a computer science professor?

I really didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. I knew I would go to graduate school, because my parents expected that. But I never thought to myself, “I really want to do computer science research and I really want to be a professor.” And I didn’t really know very much about research, but I had gotten interested in artificial intelligence and about how we could use computers to model how people think.

Toward the end of graduate school, I didn’t really feel like I could go be a professor and set up a research program. The academic job market was quite poor, so I started looking for research lab positions, where I could learn more about how to do research and not worry about the teaching thing. I ended up at SRI International; I was there for about 10 years, and I liked it a lot, but in that environment, you’re always scrambling to get funding. And I really missed working with students. As my husband was finishing up graduate school, I looked for academic positions, and ended up at UMBC.

I’ve been really happy that I made that move back into academia. Now I work to increase access to computer science for students of all genders and races, particularly at the K-12 level, but also in college and graduate school.

Have you attended Grace Hoper Celebration in the past?

I’ve organized a couple of panels and been a panelist or a presenter in a number of different sessions. The opportunity to speak in front of a room full of women has been really inspiring, and it’s motivated me to come back to UMBC and look for other ways to have that kind of broad impact on underrepresented groups, both with faculty and with students.

Because we participate in the BRAID initiative, we bring a lot of students to the Grace Hopper Celebration. That’s had a huge impact on the culture within the department—even for students who didn’t themselves go to GHC—because the students that attend come back with this real sense of empowerment and awareness that they bring, as leaders, to other activities that they’re involved with here.

What are you looking forward to at Grace Hopper Celebration this year?

I would love to come away with some really creative ideas for initiatives, or activities, or programs that can help us to address some issues around around peer-to-peer interactions and perception of careers.

But, I also know that it’s better to go with a really open mind and just soak it all in, because you don’t know what you’re going to walk away with. Sometimes it’s a connection. It’s a new person that you meet who pulls you into some initiative or activity, or just connects you with a new network of people.

I’m also excited about watching Diane Greene accept the Technical Leadership ABIE Award. She’s one of my very good friends from grad school—we went to UC Berkeley together. She’s a cool, inspiring person, and a great choice for this award. So I’m excited to get to see her, and the opportunity to get our awards together is meaningful to me.

What would you like to see change for women in tech in the next 10 years?

I’ve been focusing a lot of my energies at the K-12 grades, and especially high school level, because that if we can increase the exposure of young girls to the idea of computing, and to seeing themselves as creators of technology, and to the notion that they belong in that world every bit as much as the boys do, then that’s how things will change. Because there’s such differential encouragement and exposure for boys and girls, I don’t think that we can leave the culture the way it is and expect to change the norms in technology industry and higher education. Not only has that not changed, but really in the last 20 years, it’s gotten worse, which is so discouraging to see.

But I do see signs that things are changing. I’m the faculty advisor for a summer camp at UMBC called Mind, Body & Coding, which brings elementary and middle-school girls for a one week camp where they do robotics, coding, and yoga. It’s to get them really thinking of themselves as belonging and owning technology. They can create things. They can solve problems. The yoga part helps with self-esteem and self-awareness, and connects mindfulness to technology in a way that our culture doesn’t.

In practice, technology has to be community-based and collaborative. But people with those skills aren’t the people who feel welcomed into the field right now. One of the patterns that we’re seeing in tech companies with failures of leadership ties into perceptions about which attributes make a good leader, especially in technology, and an over-focus on technical skills, and an under-focus on interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.

It’s a real problem, but it’s also a perception problem. I’ve even seen it in my own career: I know there are people here at UMBC who greatly respect my teaching ability, my mentoring, the work that I do around diversity, who at the same time would say with a straight face, “She’s not really a research powerhouse.” And yet, I’ve gotten more research funding than almost anybody in my department, and I’m very visible in my research community. But there’s this assumption that you can either have people skills, or technical skills, but not both.

As a culture right now, we value technical skills more than people skills. And women are inherently more associated with people skills. So, there’s this weird phenomenon that happens where women are praised for their people skills, but they’re not rewarded for those people skills. In fact, their technical skills are downgraded because there’s this perceived conflict. That needs to change.

What inspires your work in diversity and inclusion?

Having two daughters has made me even more aware of the social forces that are placed on girls. There are a lot of people who want to believe that they are not discriminating on purpose, and therefore, the differences must be biological. It makes them more comfortable to say, “Look at my little boy. He’s all over the place. Look at my little girl. She’s so good.” There might be some biological differences there, but there’s so much non-biological nurturing and environmental influence that we couldn’t separate it.

We need to be more willing to acknowledge that nobody’s acting on bias out of ill intent. But yet, it’s happening, and we should try to work to support everybody in having equal access to genuine choices. And it’s not about not giving opportunities to white boys, and it’s not about telling people that they’re bad. It’s about recognizing the influences that lead people to make choices, and making sure that we’re providing every opportunity for people to genuinely make whatever choices they want to make.

Diversity is something I’ve really cared about since I can remember. My senior year in college, I took a class in women’s studies. That really opened my eyes to a lot of things that I had never stopped to think about before, and it made me more aware of some of these subtle kinds of societal forces that we’re not conscious of, generally speaking, that push people in particular directions associated with their gender.


Meet Marie during GHC at Student of Vision, A. Richard Newton and Social Impact ABIE Award Winners 2017 – A Panel Discourse on Friday, October 6, 2017 from 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm in OCCC W300.

Thank you to Juniper Networks, sponsor of the 2017 A. Richard Newton Educator ABIE Award.