2016 PFIG Recipient Jean Salac

Career Administrator
2016 PFIG Recipient Jean Salac

2016 PFIG Recipient Jean SalacJournal Entry #1

This summer, I’m interning at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate. Together with my mentor, Jan Cuny, the Program Director of Computing Education, and her team of fellows, we will be shaping the President’s new Computer Science (CS) for All initiative. CS for All aims to empower all K-12 students to learn computer science and develop the computational thinking skills necessary in the digital economy and the ever more technology-driven world.

With my passion for the underrepresentation of women and minorities in CS, I was ecstatic to start my internship. The NSF did not disappoint- my first week was phenomenal! Walking into the door, I have never felt more welcomed by a group before. The drive our team has is contagious and it was great to talk to people who shared my passion. Jan and her fellows recommended some readings throughout the week to improve my understanding of the problem and to familiarize myself with the current efforts to address it. I quickly realized that initial understanding of the problem was quite naïve. My eyes were opened to the sheer complexity of the problem; there were so many dimensions to this problem of diversity in CS that I had not considered before. As I deepen my understanding of the problem throughout the internship, one of the fellows on my team and I were also tasked with a portfolio analysis of all the Computing Education programs. This requires an analysis of all the proposals funded through all of the NSF’s Computing Education initiatives. This will allow us to shape the direction of CS for All and to decide how it can best build upon the NSF’s previous initiatives.

Not only has this first week been an eye-opening experience, it has also opened so many doors for me already. In the first week alone, I met one of my professional role models, Ruthe Farmer, who was formerly a leader of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) and is now an advisor for tech inclusion for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. I also managed to speak with another one of my role models, Rebecca Garcia, over the phone. She is the co-founder of Coderdojo NYC, a nonprofit running free workshops for web, game and app development for youth ages 7 to 17.

Needless to say, my first week has been amazing. I look forward to having my voice heard and my views reflected in the development of CS for All and I can’t wait for more eye-opening and ‘door-opening’ experiences!

Journal Entry #2

I can’t believe I’m already more than halfway through my internship- time truly flies when you’re having fun! To help shape CS for All, I have been analyzing the grants that the NSF have awarded in the past through prior CS Education and Broadening Participation initiatives. The goal of this analysis is to find underrepresented communities and institutions that have not been receiving as much support as others.

Through this process, I developed an interest in the diversity within the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community and the disparities some AAPI communities face that often get masked because of the ubiquitous “model minority” myth. Although the AAPI community is over-represented in the STEM fields, this over-representation draws from only a select few AAPI communities. Many other AAPI communities, such as the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hmong communities, face many educational disparities that often stays invisible. I will be pursuing this issue further and come up with potential solutions throughout my time at the NSF.

For CS for All, I have also been researching social innovation frameworks to help guide the various efforts made nationwide to broaden participation in Computer Science. Throughout my internship, I have also gotten opportunities to witness some of the great work happening in this field, such as CS Matters in Maryland led by Dianne O’Grady-Cunniff and the UVA Tapestry Workshops that helps teachers develop more inclusive lessons and active recruitment techniques. For the rest of my internship, I will also be developing posters to share these incredible efforts as well as informational and educational material for CS teachers on interesting CS-related projects funded by the NSF.

Throughout my internship, I have not only deepened my understanding of this issue of underrepresentation, but also broaden my knowledge of other related and unrelated fields. I have explored various policy issues, such as environmental justice, public health, poverty, social justice, civic engagement and science diplomacy. As some of these topics can be sensitive, I am still learning how to best approach these topics so as to encourage meaningful conversations. With the breadth and depth of the issues I am exposed to, I have also grown to be a better listener and a faster learner. I hope to continue this growth throughout the rest of my internship.

Journal Entry #3

Wow, I can’t believe it’s over. Interning at the NSF has been a very eye-opening experience. On top of analyzing previous NSF broadening participation in Computer Science initiatives, creating posters for successful NSF-funded programs and developing educational materials for teachers about NSF projects, I was also roped into another similar project. This project was focused on inclusive STEM entrepreneurship, which put me out of my comfort zone. While I have been working on inclusivity in CS, I was focused on K-20 education. Working on inclusive STEM entrepreneurship gave me a lot of insight into another dimension of this issue of broadening participation. It also allowed me to see the intersection between formal education and entrepreneurship. For example, some colleges have built successful entrepreneurial environments for their students and therefore, have the infrastructure to support student entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, not very many minority-serving institutions have this infrastructure so research is being done as to how to build capacity in these schools.

The largest challenge I faced was the lack of research and resources in which Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) performance in STEM were disaggregated according to ethnicity, although there is evidence that certain AAPI subgroups are very underserved. I learned that the definitions of “diversity” and “underrepresented” are fairly rigid for historical and societal reasons, which makes it very difficult to shift the needle using a race-based approach. Instead, I identified a big factor that contributed to the disparity that these underserved AAPI communities faced: the fact that many of these students were English Language Learners. I had a little bit more success that way, but the research in that space was also fairly limited.

Fortunately, with the help of my mentor Jan, I have been able to meet researchers in CS education that are also interested in tackling that issue. While pursuing a PhD had been one of my options before going into my internship, interning at the NSF has shown me that pursuing a doctorate in order to expand this body of research is the best next step for me after graduation. Not only was I unsure about pursuing a PhD before the internship, I did not feel confident about my ability to get into a doctorate program of my choice. Being surrounded by a very supportive team changed that and now, I feel empowered to pursue my interests. A piece of advice one of my teammates gave me really resonated with me- “Don’t say no to yourself”. I had not realized it before but I had been telling myself I could not get into a graduate program of my choice because I was afraid that I was not good enough. I was saying no to myself; I was stopping myself from pursuing what I wanted because I was scared of taking that opportunity.

To my peers at UVA, I want to encourage all of you to be brave, to take chances and follow your passions even when you don’t have guaranteed success. Don’t say no to yourself, because you’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.