Google funds new computer science initiative.

Mount Holyoke faculty members have been awarded a grant to establish a new peer-mentoring program for computer science students.

By Keely Savoie

Computer science at Mount Holyoke is going giga. The College has received a prestigious Google grant that will widen the pipeline of female students going into the field.

The program—called Megas and Gigas Educate (MaGE)—complements a student-led cocurricular program that pairs experienced computer science students (Gigas) with newer students (Megas) for social encouragement and networking.

Heather Pon-Barry, principal investigator for the grant and assistant professor of computer science, teamed up with Associate Professor of Computer Science Audrey St. John and Becky Wai-Ling Packard, professor of psychology and education, to develop the mentor-training curriculum. It will expand the College's ability to meet growing demand for introductory-level classes and reach new students interested in computer science. The program will benefit both less-experienced students—who will have the opportunity to learn in one-on-one and small-group settings from their more advanced peers—and the mentors as well, who will develop essential leadership and technical skills.

"MaGE is designed to involve students in an initial training phase as they learn to become effective and inclusive technical mentors, and subsequently in a practicum phase, when they will be working as mentors and training less-experienced students," said Pon-Barry. "The opportunity to teach will give them both leadership skills and technical skills, such as peer code review, that will help prepare them for computing careers down the line."

Most of the grant funding will go toward training mentors in the nuanced work of effectively supporting new learners.

“Mentors may be great at computer science and invested in seeing other students do well, but they need support around how to offer effective feedback that will boost their mentees’ skills, confidence, and sense of belonging in the field,” explained Packard. “With this program we are focusing on peer mentoring from a pedagogical perspective.”

St. John added that training peer mentors to support students learning to program will strengthen a key component in the success of the computer science program, providing a robust educational experience. “On top of this, we will simultaneously be highlighting the visibility of role models, which is extremely important for increasing and retaining diversity in the field.”

The MaGE program will complement the cocurricular mentorship program with which it shares the roots of its name: the Megas and Gigas. Megas and Gigas gives newer students a sense of community and social support that will further deepen and strengthen the network in computer science at Mount Holyoke.

“We wanted to make sure the new students who were coming in felt like they had people who they could approach with questions, and who could provide any type of support that they needed,” said Pragya Bajoria ’15, of Calcutta, India, who, with Camille Malonzo '16, started the Megas and Gigas program as an initiative of the Computer Science Society through a grant from the National Center for Women in Technology at the beginning of the academic year. The program is now run by Tiffany Chou ’16, of Bellingham, Washington.

“Sometimes it can feel like you are alone and struggling in the lab, so it is a way to show new students that they are not alone and a part of the community,” said Bajoria. “We have social outings; last week the Gigas and Megas went ice-skating together. This week, we are having a karaoke night.”

Together, the Megas and Gigas along with the MaGE program take aim at the slanted demographics in the field of computer science by addressing the two greatest barriers for women in the field.

“There are fewer women in computer science not only because of a pipeline issue, but also because of challenges retaining women in the major,” said Sidnie Davis, women's outreach specialist at Google. “This program is one great way to give these students a rich and diverse network of peers within the field that they can continue to build on throughout their careers.”

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