Soapbox Science, Cardiff

Soapbox Science is a public engagement event designed to get scientists out into the public and into public spaces, talking about their work. It’s supposed to demystify science (a bit) but also to change people’s perceptions of what scientists look like; one of the ways it does this is by making all of the scientists on the soapbox women. When I heard about it, I thought… Public engagement? Women in Science? Sounds a bit mad? Guess I’d better apply then!

The event I applied for was my nearest one, this year, and that was Cardiff, and it was yesterday. As you can probably guess from the blog post, I got in.

Having got in, my next problem was what to talk about… for 30 minutes, to a general passers-by kind of audience, without computers or posters or anything like that. As a vision scientist, who works with computers, that’s quite the challenge. The topic I settled on was Shadows.

One of the cool things about Soapbox Science is that it’s OK to bring along props. Some of the scientists had brains, or little bits of gold, or fungus, or felt-and-wax artistic renderings of tumours (no, srsly, they did). I went for an arduino powered cardboard box.

This involved having a neopixel ring inside a cardboard box, programmed with various lighting patterns, and a button on the outside which switched pattern every time the button was pressed. My hope was that by having a ring-shaped light source it would be possible to look out of the middle of the ring, and having the viewpoint of the lightsource (as Da Vinci said, “No luminous body sees the shadow it casts” or something like that). But the viewpoint was just out so you could actually see the shadows anyway. So I made the 16 light sources either chase around with different colours, or gradually illuminate making the shadows hazy, or gradually go off, making the shadows sharp again.

Inside the box I hung a small plastic model of a skateboarder, I soldered all the bits together, and then I had my main prop: a Shadowbox. The shadow effects created really were quite strange, and they served quite well to illustrate the idea that the size of the light source, the colour of the light source and the colour of the screen all affect the shadow’s appearance.

As you look into the box through one of two holes, the experience of seeing the shadows is quite disconcerting, and it can take a while to work out what exactly is going on. But that’s OK – I wanted something kind-of “installationy” and this worked quite well as a visual experience. What didn’t work so well was the skater on a string – as the figurine was suspended from the lid using fishing wire, she swung wildly from side to side if anyone knocked the box, making it all just that little bit more incomprehensible.

The other props I took were some flipbooks, made from a 50 frame sequence of shadow video. I took books representing the input (the actual video), the ground truth (what we want our software to output), some intermediate processing steps and the final output of our shadow detection routine. These were hacked together using python and LaTeX; if you’re interested in any of the code (flipbook code or arduino code) you can find it on my github account. I also took some zoom in crops of images showing pixellated shadow or non-shadow regions, mainly just to show how hard it is to detect shadows when your input is pixels. And I took some sharpies and a sketchbook because … I NEEDED PROPS.

So yesterday, Saturday morning 4th June, I got up early and drove down to Cardiff with a boot full of electronics and poorly put together flipbooks. I arrived just after 12, to a control centre in Yr Hen Llyfrgell which was a hive of activity, helpers, organisers, mascots, labcoats, tshirts, props and of course scientists. And balloons. And coffee. Each scientist was allocated a helper to assist with props and so on: my helper was a very nice and efficient Cardiff Uni medical student called Gunjan who was awesome at ensuring I had the things I needed when I needed them.

One of the mascots was the Cardiff University Dragon, who’s called Dylan. Apparently it was really very hot indeed inside the dragon. The other mascot (who I didn’t get a photo of) was a teddy bear. I’m not sure why.

We’d been advised to have a few 5-minute ideas for talks, and we’d been told we might get questions/heckles and so on, so repeating bits was probably going to be necessary. The time came and I went out, with this written on the back of my hand:

  • Me and science
  • Shadow formation
  • Computer vision
  • Pixels, videos
  • Ground truth
  • Colour, texture

Our soapboxes were in a busy intersection on Cardiff’s shopping district, quite near a woman with an amplifier singing eighties lounge songs (niiice). As talk venues go, I can’t think of many more challenging. The actual “talking about science to the general public on a soapbox” bit was almost exactly as terrifying as I thought it would be.

For the first half hour session, I stood up, talked, drew an audience of about 15, caught people’s eyes, talked some more, waved my props around, tried to get people to look into the shadow box, and then ran out of things to say. Looking at my watch I realised I was just 2 minutes from the end of the session, so that was OK and the audience did have questions. Most of them had stayed till the end, too. They might have had even more questions I suppose, if I had at any point slowed down enough for them to get a word in…

During my second stint on the box, I had a completely different experience. For the first 5 minutes I had no audience, and then a guy I vaguely recognised (maybe from the Crucible?) came and watched at the request of one of the organisers. Which was nice. I didn’t really want to talk to an audience of 0. Slowly more people came and went, including some kids (who really liked the flipbooks) and a remarkable heckler who thought I was a bloke.

At the end of the day everyone was quite hyper, and we all agreed it had been super fun if terrifying. Here’s a picture of me with my excellent helper Gunjan:

At this point I needed to stretch my legs and be quiet for half an hour so I went and checked into my hotel before returning to the afterparty (complete with wine, for those who do that sort of thing). All in all a good day. I’m not sure that it’s my favourite form of public engagement, but it certainly got me out there and out of my comfort zone, talking to people who I’d never had spoken with otherwise.

Playful coding training meeting, Girona

I’m just back from our penultimate project meeting on the Playful Coding project. It’s been a good year-and-a-bit of working, playing, talking to kids, and talking to teachers. After the last week we’ve really made progress on our main output too, which is a book for teachers and people who want to engage school-aged students with programming and computational thinking using playful workshops.

The Wales team this session were myself, Wayne Aubrey and Nigel Hardy from Aberystwyth University, and Tomi Rowlands, Sam Roberts, and Gwennan Philips from Ysgol Bro Hyddgen in Machynlleth. One of the real wins of projects like this is the extra time you get to spend with cool local people as well as the time you spend chatting to teachers and lecturers from other countries – we’ve come up with some good ideas and I think the links we have with Bro Hyddgen now are great.

In May, Girona has a flower festival which means that there are hundreds (literally, hundreds) of floral displays across the town. It also meant that the town was fairly full (hotels were busy and the streets filled up during the afternoon). But we were working pretty much non stop so that didn’t bother us too much.

The aim of the project is to write, test and revise workshop activities for schoolkids, and then to write a book explaining what we’ve done and what we’ve learned. As we’re nearing the end now, we have been mostly writing and testing activities. The group split into 3 sub-groups, to work on different aspects of our remaining tasks, and over the course of the week, we visited three schools and ran 8 workshops as well as adding something like 50 pages of text to our book. Busy busy. Here’s the group shot at a school in Figueras, where we’d just run two parallel workshops and a book editing session:

Figueras is famous for one particular guy: Salvador Dali. His museum is there and after we’d been in the school a full day (9-4) we got to visit the museum. It is definitely a museum to recommend – Dali didn’t just fill it with pictures, there are sculptures and the very building is surrealist. If you get to go try to get a tour as the tour guide was great at explaining what was actually going on behind the art. Believe me, there’s a lot going on behind the art. From 6-8 that evening we gathered in a coffee bar to have a Dali-themed Scratch Hackathon. Here’s a picture of Wayne and I working on our respective Scratch programs. I thought it was a lovely idea to get us staff engaging with Scratch and playful coding – if you spend all your time talking about how coding should be fun without actually doing any fun coding… it can get difficult to maintain the enthusiasm:)

Eduard Muntaner (EduardM on scratch and on twitter) has put together a studio of the scratch outputs we made that evening – there are some fun animations. I made a video activated Dali face where the moustache twirls when you move infront of your laptop camera: you can play it here.

We visited Escola Veinat in Salt (a suburb of Girona) the next day, and ran workshops on Mindstorms and on Scratch. The Scratch workshop had been written by the Romanian team, was being delivered by the Catalan team and my job was to observe, along with an Italian colleague. This multiple observers approach is one of the real strengths of these training meetings – we try out each others’ materials, and we critique them, and we revise them. They’re actually getting really good now. Here I am in the classroom, trying to observe rather than help. It was fairly easy not to help too much as my Catalan is not very good at all…

In the evening we had a talk from Maria Antonia Canals, who is an absolute superstar in terms of pedagogical theory in Spain. She is 84 or something like that and has had the most amazing life, working in schools and in teacher training for so long and in such a creative and thoughtful way. Her specialism is the teaching of mathematics, particularly systems which make maths tangible and she’s invented some really superb systems for explaining abstract concepts to little kids.

On the penultimate day, we went to St George’s School, which is an English language instruction school outside of Girona where we could run 4 parallel workshops. I ran the AppInventor workshop with some 13-year-olds, which after a couple of technology related hiccups went quite well. The kids were amazingly quick to pick it up so even though we’d lost a bit of time to setup, everyone managed to write a basic drawing app and get it onto their phones/tablets.

Whilst I was working on the AppInventor workshop my Aber colleague Nigel was helping out with a Scratch workshop. I think the other workshops were all scratch activities, actually – the school is a 3-18 school so we were able to run workshops, in English or in French, across all age groups.

It was then back to the University of Girona for a quick tour of their underwater robotics lab, and then another afternoon spent working on our book. The book is getting there, the robots are awesome.

Building a lightstage

A Lightstage is a system which lets you completely control illumination in a particular space, and capture images from multiple views. They’re used for high resolution graphics capture and computer vision, and they’re fairly rare. I don’t think there are many non-commercial ones in the UK, and they’re research kit (which means you can’t really just go out and buy one, you’ve got to actually build it). Usually, Lightstages are used for facial feature capture, but I’m kinda interested to use them with plants. With the support of the National Plant Phenomics Centre, here in Aberystwyth, and and Aberystwyth University Research Fund grant (URF) I’ve been slowly putting one together.

The key ingredient of a Lightstage is a frame which can hold the lights and the cameras equidistant from the target object. We’ve gone for a geodesic dome construction. Here’s a time-lapse video of Geoff from Geodomes.com building ours (a 2 metre 3v dome made out of rigid struts covered in non-reflectant paint). He has a bit of help from Alassane Seck, who did a PhD here in Aberystwyth on Lightstage imaging.

Once we’d got the dome, the next job was to think about mounting lights on the dome. There are a couple of different approaches we can take, but the essential features are that some of the lights are polarised and some of the cameras also have polarising filters. This means we can separate out specular reflections (light that bounces straight off) and diffuse reflections (light that interacts more with the surface of the object). Pete Scully‘s been working on the light placement, doing a lot of work in simulation. Here’s an early simulated placement: dots are lights, boxes are cameras.

The dome was housed in the Physical Sciences building but it’s recently moved. This puts us in a room which is actually light-tight, a key consideration for reducing interference in the controlled lighting situation. Here’s an arty shot of the top of the dome in its new home.

Since the move of room (very recently) things have really picked up. We’ve got a light-proof space, and we’ve got an intern from France (Robin Dousse) working with us too. Andy Starr‘s been working on the electronics and construction from the outset, and during breaks in teaching has really driven the project forwards. Here’s a shot of Robin, Pete and Andy by the dome:

Robin’s been working on programming our LED controllers. We’ve a fairly complicated master-slave controller system, as running 100 or so ultra-bright lights is not trivial. We’re aiming for a pair (one polarised, one not) at each vertex. Here’s a 12 second video of some flashing LEDs. It’s going to look a lot more impressive than this once it’s actually going, but hey, this is actual lights lighting up on our actual dome so I am very pleased.

We’ve now also, finally, got cameras on the dome. We’re not 100% certain about positioning, but we’re getting there. Andy’s been working on the camera triggers. Soon we’ll have something which flashes, takes pictures, and gives us the data we want.

Lego robots in Pembrokeshire

I’ve been helping out at Aber Robotics Club this year, which is a weekly after school club for local schoolkids. We got invited down to do a workshop in Pembrokeshire as part of “The Cheerful Project” who put on workshops in rural Pembrokeshire, so Steve filled his boot with Lego Mindstorms, got up early on a Saturday, met up with me and with Martin (our new institute schools outreach guy who doesn’t have a webpage yet) and we headed south to somewhere I’d never heard of. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of 7am starts on a Saturday, the weather was glorious and you can’t beat the coast road south of Aber for views. So it was feeling like a good day before we’d even got there.

Upon arrival we met the local organiser who filled us in on details about the people – mixed groups of adults and kids, with the youngest kid being 6, most kids 8-10 and a handful of teenagers. Perfect for lego. We decided to start off with a “programming” task though, with a humanoid robot that could only understand three commands (forwards, left and right) needing to perform a figure 8 path around some tables. The humanoid robot roles were played admirably by parents with blindfolds on. The next photo might look like some bizarre hostage situation but I assure you that it is a photo of a robot workshop.

Much to the kids’ amusement it turns out that the parents weren’t very good at following instructions blindfold. The exercise is a useful one to discuss robots, why they never do what you tell them to, and how you might program them. We also discussed sensors: the robots couldn’t see but it turns out they all navigated a little using sound, which is interesting.

We then got the kids building Lego robots, and once they were mostly done we broke for lunch, out the back of the hall. Quite a nice place to sit and eat some lovely food, provided by the Cheerful Project for us roboteers.

The kids then tethered the robots to our tablets, using Bluetooth, and remote controlled them. A few practice runs were carried out…

And then each of our junior roboteers piloted their own lego robot around the same figure 8 path that the “humanoid robot” had failed on earlier. To finish with we got all the roboteers in a circle and let them have a big robot fight. Because… why not eh? It’s fun.

All the kids seemed to really enjoy it, and I think most of the parents did too. As we were packing up one of the mums came in from the carpark to let us know that her kid had just said “this was the best day of my life!”. Which is the kind of feedback that it’s really nice to get.

Here’s Steve packing up the car.

We stopped for honey ice cream in Aberaeron on the way back too. Sometimes it is worth getting up at 7am on a Saturday.

BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium blog roundup

The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium was last week, in Sheffield. This is a collection of links to reports and so on. As usual I was the conference chair, and my official blog report is now on the BCSWomen site. SO pop over there and read that, then come back for the link roundup.

Playful coding training meeting: Le Creusot, France

We’re just back from a playful coding EU Erasmus+ meeting in Le Creusot, France. The project is really coming together now: we’ve been up and running for nearly a year and the project website now has a lot of content and we’re beginning to pull together a teacher’s guide.

The aim of last week’s meeting was to look at how different people implemented the activities in different contexts, to check that the information we have is good enough for people to pick up and use our workshops, and to think through next steps for the teacher’s guide. It’s been a busy week of thinking, talking, writing, teaching, and testing workshops on local kids.

We were lucky to be able to take four people from Aber Uni this time: myself, Wayne Aubrey (who’s been to the last two meetings so now knows the project well), Amanda Clare, and Mark Neal. We also travelled with Tomi from a local high school (Ysgol Bro Hyddgen). Here’s our traditional “arriving at the meeting” selfie.

For much of the week we were sat in a meeting room discussing the content of the workshops, the presentation of the workshops, and different ways we can organise these so that teachers can make the most of the materials we’ve produced.

Discussions included

  • “Do the workshops have the right titles?”
    (answer: some of them!)
  • “How can we structure these so that there’s a natural flow or network?”
    (answer: it might not be possible, as there’s a real range of activities ranging from beginner’s workshops linking poetry with animation, aimed at 8 year olds and extended workshops talking about plot development and story structure as well as coding, aimed at older kids through to Arduino and other robotic stuff like this workshop which requires specific kit and teacher skills.
  • “How can we work together on a teacher’s guide to help people get the most out of this?”
    (do we want something interactive, or a PDF, or a book, or what?)

We did some practical workshops, with local kids, as well as talking about structure and organisation and plans. I ran a workshop on Artificial Intelligence, which was quite the challenge: 12 kids, under 10, all French. My French is quite good, but not quite good enough to discuss philosophical ideas about intelligence and the Turing test with under-10s. But I gave it a good shot, and had some very welcome linguistic support from the local Le Creusot team. In the AI workshop we do a series of activities which explore ideas around intelligence and embodiment, and at the end of each activity we vote on the question “Can computers think?“.

The aim is to get the kids thinking, not to get them to take a particular stance. Indeed my hope in writing the workshop is that people will consider ideas about what thinking is and what it means for a machine to be intelligent: the aim is to change some minds. So from that perspective the workshop worked. Top tip, though, if you want to run the workshop in France: the chatbot Jeanneton, whilst French, is probably not age-appropriate for 9 year olds.

In each of the workshops we ran we also had observers, and I observed a robot workshop written by the French team. This was really very good fun – POB robots are drag-and-drop coding vehicles with some simple sensors, and the kids really got into it. Here’s some pictures of the robots in action.

In all, it was an interesting and challenging week which really made me think about schools engagement in a more structured way. It’s particularly inspiring to see the kinds of workshops that the other groups are proposing, and I’m really looking forward to hosting everyone in Aberystwyth for the next meeting in March.

If you want to find out more, Amanda’s written a blog on the meeting too, you can like us on Facebook to keep up with what’s going on, and we’ve got a twitter hashtag

Lovelace 2016

The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium is a one-day conference for women undergrad and masters students in computing. The centrepiece of the day is a poster contest, and to enter the contest all students need do is write a short abstract (250 words). I started this conference, back in 2008, and run it every year in different universities around the UK. Last year we had just over 150 attendees, and this year we’re hoping to beat that.

SO in March this year we’ll be at Sheffield Hallam Uni, with support from the University of Sheffield, and we’ve got a great speaker lineup coming together – I’ll probably blog about that again in a couple of weeks. Thanks to generous sponsorship we can refund travel for poster contest finalists, and this year we hope to be able to cover about 80 places. If you can, talk to students and encourage them to apply, as confidence is often an issue. There are some abstracts from previous years here if you want to see the type of thing that’s been submitted before: some sample abstracts.

This is our 9th event, and we are expecting a good turnout. We’ve grown year on year and now have a good reputation with students and industrial sponsors. So please encourage any undergrads you know to apply – it’s fun and it looks good on the CV. And there will be cake.

If you’re a student, what are you waiting for?

Here’s the call for abstracts: http://bit.ly/bcs_lovelace, you’ve got just under 2 weeks to write 250 words.

Early mastery/playfulcoding meeting, Craiova

Last week, I went to Romania for an EU ERASMUS+ project meeting about computing in schools. There were four of us from west Wales on the trip – Tomi Rowlands and Erin Good from Ysgol Bro Hyddgen, in Machynlleth, and Wayne Aubrey and myself from Aberystwyth University. The project has been running for a while now and this was our third physical meeting (you can find my blogs on previous meetings here: Perugia; Girona). The aim is to share best practice and materials which can help kids to learn to code in a playful way – it’s a fun project and we’re starting to make some real progress. You can see the project website here: http://playfulcoding.eu, and if you want to keep up to date you can “like” us on Facebook.

When your starting point is Aberystwyth, travel to anywhere is complicated. To get to Craiova, we had to first get to Luton Airport. Then we spent a night in Bucharest (fitting in a bit of sightseeing), and then it was a 3-4 hour train journey to Craiova. I do love travelling, particularly around new countries, and the journey is absolutely part of the fun. For instance – the departure board at Bucharest train station was quite something:

Upon arrival in Craiova we had to find the University, which was actually fairly easy. Here’s our obligatory “West Wales Team arrives at meeting” selfie, photobombed by Joan from the Bourgogne team with some style…

The focus of the first day of the meeting was to consolidate where we were with our coding activities: each site is writing up activities that they do with kids, and then other sites are testing them out. We’re making a lot of progress but as is often the case we could be faster. I have a bunch of things I need to write up for public consumption, and also we have a bunch of activities we’re supposed to be trialling in local schools. So part of the first day was a re-cap on where we are and a little bit of minor wrist-slapping for those of us who need to get into schools more. The hope is that each site will contribute 3-4 activities, which will give us a really strong resource with 20+ fun coding workshops written up well, and then tested in a different country or two. We’re getting there!

The focus of the second day was looking at our next task: this is a big one. We need to write a Teachers’ Guide to help people in schools use the materials we’re pulling together. This involves working out how to structure the workshops, how to highlight links between the workshops, and how to represent any dependencies. Will people want them organised by equipment? Language? Interdisciplinary links? …

Here’s Xevi Cufi of the University of Girona introducing the second day:

We concluded with a visit to a school – one of the Romanian partners, Liceul Tehnologic “Constantin Ianculescu”. It’s always interesting to see inside schools; the classrooms here seemed fairly traditional (lines of desks, very well-behaved and friendly kids) but the stuff the kids were doing was really quite advanced, particularly mathematically. Here’s Marius Marian of Craiova University explaining some old posters on the wall:

Unfortunately we had to dash back to the station in order to catch a train, so we missed the Scratch Programming lesson. But it was a fascinating trip, and the project is really beginning to motor now.

What I learned from going to every exercise class once

I’m just back from the workout called Insanity, which was the last class in my personal mission to try every type of exercise class offered at Aber Uni at least once (except yoga – you’ve got to draw the line somewhere). I saved Insanity for last, you can probably guess why.

Being a proper nerd of course I kept a spreadsheet, with comments and some estimates (percentage of class completed, approximate proportion of guys, that kind of thing). So here are some stats:

  • Highest max heartrate reached: Insanity. Today. 140bpm
  • Lowest max HR: Pilates, where most sessions I got up to 70bpm max
  • Lowest heartrate reached: also Pilates, 53bpm. Those classes can be relaxing
  • Maximum steps per class: an hour’s Zumba class with 4725 steps
  • Maximum steps per minute of class: a 45 minute Dumbbell workout
  • Hardest class: a tie for work-it-circuits, Bootcamp, and insanity. I’m sure that the nice man who teaches ordinary circuits will be disappointed to learn this.
  • Highest proportion of blokes: Circuits, with an estimated 75% bloke proportion
  • Lowest proportion of blokes: 6 classes had no guys at all (2 of the Aerobics classes, one of the Pilates, one of the Zumbas, a Piyo and a Bootcamp)

The project has taken me 2 months, and has involved going to 2 or 3 classes a week, 23 classes in total. To my surprise, there aren’t any which I’ve actively disliked. The only one I don’t think I’ll return to is PiYo, and that’s because it’s a bit too much like yoga. I think my favourites are dumbbell workout, bodyfit, and (surprisingly for me) bootcamp. But I’ll go back to pretty much all of the others too.

For any aber people wondering… here’s the timetable.

How can tech companies attract more women graduates?

Employers who want to change the gender ratio within their workforce have some difficult problems to solve. First amongst these problems is the size of the pool you’re fishing from: there just aren’t that many computer science women to choose from, so finding women who come ready for the workforce can be hard. Obviously you can look outside of the computing grad population – either look for non-grads and apprentices, or look for a broader range of degree subjects – but being a computer science lecturer I’m pretty convinced of the value of a computing degree. And many of the employers we talk to like computing grads too.

So, looking specifically at companies who want to employ computer science graduates there seems to be a real push to employ more women at the moment. I’ve been called by two big name employers in the last couple of months, and I’ve been contacted by a recent grad working in recruitment at a third big name consultancy, and the stalls we have at the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium are getting more and more popular each year.

We have an alumni group on Facebook full of women who’ve been to the Lovelace in the past, many of whom are now in grad jobs. In order to find out what kinds of events and recruitment strategies they’d find interesting, I decided to ask outright. There were a couple of suggestions (CV workshops and women-only assessment centres) from companies, and other suggestions came from the students themselves. Generally, the thread was quite interesting.

  • You have to get your adverts checked over by someone who’s not a guy. A lot of tech firms (particularly smaller ones) have a bit of a macho, brogrammer culture, and job ads which ask for rock-star programmers who are happy to work long hours, drink beer, and play computer games are appealing to a small subset of the universe of possible employees. If you really want that kind of employee that’s fine, I guess, but you might as well stop pretending that you’re bothered about diversity.
  • There was broad agreement that the students would like honest feedback and application support: CV workshops can be useful, but so can interview practice and mock assessment centre practice. Companies who are willing to provide training events, with decent feedback, and who can give tips on applications (particularly applications to that company, if it’s a good fit) would definitely be of interest.
  • The idea of women-only assessment centres got a mixed response. Lots of women don’t like events or strategies which are exclusively targeted at one gender.
  • The impression I got was that more balanced (less macho) assessment centres would be a good thing. This could mean women-led assessment centres, and assessment centres where there were balanced teams during teamwork exercises, would be better than outright women-only sessions. It’s true that there’s something odd about being the only woman in a group when you’re being assessed on groupwork (guys are statistically more likely to interrupt and take over) and anecdotally, this seems like it does happen fairly often in company assessment centres. Employers can get around this by having women facilitators1, ensuring that for group exercises there are balanced sets of people where possible (it’s better to have a bunch of all guy groups and a couple of 50-50 groups, for example, than have each group with just one woman in it), and making it clear that they’re taking this kind of thing into account in the job ad.
  • Offer industrial year placements and summer jobs to students in lower years; this gives both company and student a chance to see what it’s like actually working for a particular employer. There’s less of a scary commitment on both sides, and you really will get a feel for what a student can achieve.
  • There was a real interest in events that give a feel for the culture of a work place. Tours of the workplace. Meeting people who work there. Chatting to real engineers, preferably women, in an informal setting, is also a really useful thing to offer. Seeing how people work together in teams and how communication happens in the workplace is interesting to some of the women students & grads. One person suggested that actually doing some kind of activity (maybe a quiz?) in teams to see how people really worked together would be a useful way of finding out what working in the place was going to be like. I think that coming after “the year of the Tableflip”, in which technology workplace culture in general has seen a lot of bad press, students are thinking more and more about cultural fit with a company. If the employer doesn’t have any women engineers who can chat to applicants … why is that?
  • And finally get a stall at the Lovelace. At the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium we have a bunch (by which I mean “over 100”) of great women students, all of whom have chosen to give up a day from their vacation time in order to come to a computing conference. Employers who come along get to have a conversation with the students directly. To find out more about this option, talk to me:-)

Obviously there’s more to a diverse workforce than just getting people in the door in the first place (support and retention is really important, and you need to consider what happens when people take a career break) but if you don’t get the women through the door you can’t even start to address the problem. Hopefully this post will help a couple of employers to make their recruitment practices more appealing.

If you want to know more about this kind of stuff, check out Reena Jewell at geekEquality.com – she’s based in Southampton and has done some surveys on what women undergrads want in terms of tech careers.

Many thanks are due to the women students who chatted to me about this topic, both virtually and IRL.

1 obviously, women can be biased too, and if your workplace is entirely male there’s something dishonest about having mixed assessment centres.