The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) prioritizes gender diversity in its undergraduate computer science programs: it has teamed up with Cornell Tech’s Break Through Tech, a national program designed to accelerate the representation of women into higher education and tech careers.
In the tech sector today, women account for only 26% of computing professionals, and an even smaller percentage when it comes to fast-growing innovations, such as artificial intelligence (AI) or STEM. In the United States, women represent less than 20% of computer science graduates, and the number has continued to decline.
Working with Break Through Tech will build educational and professional opportunities for women at UIC, including creating pathways for students to secure paid internships during their first two years on campus.
UIC—Break Through Tech’s first university partner
UIC was selected as Break Through Tech’s first university partner to help empower women in STEM within Chicago and nationally. Robert Sloan, UIC professor and head of computer science, will be spearheading the initiative.
Women represent 20% of current graduates from UIC’s computer science program. “We want to see a 12.5% increase in the representation of women graduating from our undergraduate computer science program and we want 100% of those women to have meaningful internships on their resumes when they graduate,” said Sloan. “Our country and cities need computer science professionals, developers, researchers, and educators and, frankly, we all lose if those individuals represent only a narrow segment of the population.”
Over the last fifteen years, the computer science program within UIC College of Engineering has grown nearly 650% and has become a leader in the field. CSRankings has ranked the program in the top twenty-five across the country and also ninth among the nation’s public universities for artificial intelligence and machine learning research.
With funding from Break Through Tech, UIC plans to develop educational and professional programs to engage women, starting with designing new introductory computer science courses and workshops to teach students the essentials in coding, and more importantly, to emphasize crucial real-world experiences. Another unique program will allow UIC students to secure internships during the university’s winter break. During these “Winternships,” students will be given the chance to develop their practical skills and resumes to become competitive candidates for full-time employment post-graduation.
Tech opportunities in Chicago
Chicago is an ideal metropolitan area for diversity initiatives. As the third-largest city in the country, Chicago has been ranked sixth-best “Innovation Hub” in the world by KPMG and Moody’s Analytics named it the most diversified economy in the nation. Tech companies with a presence in Chicago include Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
UIC Global students within the UIC College of Engineering will have plenty of support to help them navigate the city’s thriving professional landscape. Services include a college-specific career center that hosts several career and networking events throughout the year. Students will also have access to UIC Global’s Career Accelerator program for exclusive professional seminars, one-on-one mentoring, and information on securing a job as an international student.
Ameesha, a sophomore computer science major from India, has already taken advantage of many professional opportunities while studying at UIC. “The College of Engineering is very supportive to undergraduates in their career paths. I have been introduced to a program for helping sophomores get research experience and mentors. The career center has also helped me with my resume and interviews for on-campus jobs,” she said.
The [Break Through Tech] partnership will help provide even more women with experience in working in an IT setting, as well as allow us more access to internships at global companies.”—Ameesha, sophomore computer science major, India
Student-run tech groups at UIC
Ameesha is an active member of UIC’s student-led Women in Computer Science (WICS) organization that creates networking opportunities for female students and encourages them to assist and support future women in the field. “WICS works very hard to ensure that every woman in engineering has a voice. We host several professional and networking events that are exclusive to minorities.”
WICS has also partnered with Google to sponsor events such as the Google Tech Challenge and workshops including the Introduction to Research as a Career. The student organization hosts education events with UIC alumni, as they are important players in the extensive network that connects undergraduate students and professionals.
Another student-oriented tech organization at UIC is the Society of Women in Engineering (SWE), which focuses on members’ academic and professional development and strengthens leadership and communication skills. They host a large range of events from attending conferences to engaging in community outreach programs. “Mom, Me and SWE” is one of their successful events that introduces engineering to girls in grades five to eight and creates a strong support network by inviting their moms or any legal guardians to the event. SWE understands the importance of building a professional network early in the process. In March 2020, SWE UIC represented the university at SWE in the City, a networking event open to all SWE chapters from different colleges in Chicago.
Being one of the most diverse universities in the nation, UIC has a strong foundation to support women in engineering and partnering with Break Through Tech will continue to strengthen efforts.
“Break Through Tech is thrilled to partner with the computer science department at UIC and build upon their success of the last several years,” said Judith Spitz, Break Through Tech’s executive director. “Our experience … has shown us that a deep partnership with a public university that has both scale and diversity, the delivery of a continuity of programming that supports women and other underrepresented groups throughout their college journey, and innovative partnerships with the industry players within the city is a formula that delivers transformative results for both the students and the tech ecosystem.”
New introductory courses are in development and the first cohort of students in the Winternship program are expected to start as early as December 2020.
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