NCWIT AiC National Awards

This past weekend, I had the honor of being recognized as an NCWIT Aspirations in Computing (AiC) National Winner. Along with 49 other high school girls with a passion for computer science and technology, I was invited on an all-expense paid trip to Charlotte, NC, where a weekend of once-in-a-lifetime friendships and unforgettable experiences awaited.

While I was there, I knew it was an experience I would want to share, as I was inspired, motivated, and humbled by the incredible work of my fellow awardees in their computer science endeavors, and the Bank of America in creating an inclusive STEM environment.

Day 1: Welcome Event and Introductions

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Sunset over Washington, DC on Friday, March 3d.

I am lucky enough to live in northern Virginia, a mere hour and half flight from Charlotte. Some of my fellow awardees who lived on the West Coast were not so lucky, however, and braved early morning flights to make it to the awards weekend.

I left from Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC right after my school ended, at 5:00. Right after the plane took off from the airport runway, I was greeted by a magnificent sight. Looking out the window at the sunset, I was reminded of all this weekend was to be– a recognition of inclusion, of diversity, and of the bright future ahead for women in technology.

After my mom and I landed in Charlotte, we were picked up by a limo service and taken to a Marriott only a block away from Bank of America’s headquarter building!  Since I left home considerably late as compared to my fellow awardees, I missed the tour of the city (which I later heard was wonderful and eye-opening) but arrived just in time for the 8:00pm- 10:00pm opening session.

After enjoying some snacks, we went around introducing each of ourselves by answering a random question posed by a fellow winner, Bank of America volunteer, or NCWIT representative. We proposed light-hearted controversial questions such as: “Star Wars or Star Trek?” “Cereal or milk first?” as well as deeper questions, such as: “How does it feel to sometimes be the only female in a room?” “How did you get involved in CS?” “What advice do you have for a young girl hoping to enter a technology field?” We also got to know the organizers of the event, and how Bank of America’s involvement in the event has shaped the thought-provoking and exciting activities in the day ahead.

We were then ushered into a separate room for team-building exercises, such as arranging ourselves in order of age, from December 31st, 1998 on one side of the room and January 1st, 2001 on the other, without talking. After we had arranged ourselves, the adults in the room were shocked– instead of ranking ourselves by year and then arranging ourselves from January to December within that year, we had gone by how old we were, essentially ranking by year and arranging ourselves in reverse calendar year. However, to us this seemed like an obvious decision! It just goes to show that if you bring 47 like-minded technologists in the room, we’ll easily agree to arrange ourselves the most logical, even if it’s the hardest, way.

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A group picture following the first day’s activities!

Day 2: Opening Speeches, MTBI Analysis, Bank of America Tour and Activities, Awards and Closing Ceremony

The second day of the event was marked by trying new things– symbolically beginning with my first taste of grits, a Southern staple. Despite living in Virginia, I consider myself a part of the North,  so I was less acquainted with the delicious taste of Southern food. Over breakfast, I got to know another section of my fellow award winners, discussing recent projects we worked on and our favorite classes in school, both STEM and humanities.

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Meeting new friends at breakfast!

After finishing breakfast, we were moved to a bigger ballroom, where we listened to an inspiring opening speech and keynote address by Mrs. Tracy Kerrins, who chronicled her journey from beginnings in technology to applying her knowledge at the Bank of America. Her speech really opened my eyes to the possibilities of technology to be applied to every aspect of business. Large companies like the Bank need technologists and computer scientists for every step of their process to tailor their services to consumers, improve customer experience, and keep their system secure. And they’re one of the first companies leading the movement to gender inclusion, and have taken pledges and steps towards equalizing the playing field for women to receive equal pay for equal work and find jobs in their company.

Following the keynote, Dr. Philip Holmes took the floor, introducing the background and results of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test we submitted electronically a couple weeks prior to the event. I had already been well-acquainted with the test, as my school had every member of the freshman class take it during freshman year. The results were used to form personality-compatible groups for the year-long Integrated Biology, English, and Technology (IBET) project. In my experiences, the process worked well, as while all three of my fellow group members were very much like me, they presented different skillsets, as some were more introverted, perceived the world from an emotional standpoint, and were more spontaneous than I was.

But what I didn’t know about the test was that it was developed by a mother-daughter team, which was such a fitting fact for a weekend celebrating women in STEM that it was astonishing. What I also didn’t realize was how obvious these different viewpoints were! Dr. Holmes separated us into groups (by our Myers-Briggs types, he later explained) for one of the four categories of the test: extrovert/introvert, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, or judging/perceiving. Then, he gave us a prompt, for example: “You have the ability to create a perfect weekend. What would you do? On sunday night, would you have accomplished everything you set out to do?” Each group then brainstormed on a board and presented their results with the larger group– and the difference was obvious and very aligned with the group’s Myers-Briggs type!

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Presenting our ideas as part of the extrovert/introvert portion of the MTBI analysis activity! From our body language, can you guess which group this is?

From my own personal results, I found the test to be very accurate. My type (ENTJ) has not changed since my freshman year of high school, though I definitely feel through my experiences I have become even more extroverted, and even more judging, which was reflected in the sub-scores of my results.

Following the MTBI activity, we listened and interacted with a panel of women in technology at the Bank of America. They ranged from college graduates to seasoned professionals who have been with the Bank for many years, providing a unique array of perspectives of where the journey in technology can take you.

After the morning sessions, we had lunch and attended our afternoon sessions– a tour of Bank of America for the parents and activities in the Discovery Place STEM Center for the awardees. The Discovery Place, around a 10 minute walk from the hotel, was actually a former day care center converted by Bank of America into a STEM center. Our first activity was to split into groups of 6 and program a “robot” using only 5 unique commands. This robot (actually one of the award winners in our group) had to navigate an obstacle course, blindfolded, guided only by the commands we could call out to her. Our group came up with the following: right (turn clockwise until the not command is called), left (counterclockwise until the not command), forward (move forward until the not command is called), pickUp (pick up the final prize), not (a helper command which meant stop).

Although we didn’t end up winning the race against the other teams, we learned a few valuable lessons for next time: make a blindfold that doesn’t cover our robot’s ears, create short and easily recognizable commands, and coordinate the commands we tell our robot as a team. Although the exercise didn’t involve any computers, it was a simple yet valuable lesson in computing conveying many concepts programmers attempt to achieve in their work.

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Our computational thinking exercise team, designing our blindfold and discussing possible commands.

Up next after the computational exercise was a design exercise– to utilize proper design techniques to craft a prototype ideal wallet, based on complaints we had about our own wallets. What was eye-opening about this exercise was that we weren’t building our ideal wallet, but rather our partner’s ideal wallet– and instead of thinking what we would like, we had to incorporate another person (a consumer)’s interests and likes.  

Following our experiences at the Discovery Place, we went to our final destination for the afternoon breakout, the Bank of America Center, for a technology Expo.

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Entering the Bank of America with the group!

During registration, awardees and their companions signed a nondisclosure agreement, so while I can’t reveal the technologies we learned about, I can say this: the experience completely changed my view of the tech industry. Bank of America, which I have always viewed as a finance-centered company, applied technology to so many fields that aren’t just related to money– they had sectors relating to cybersecurity, analyzing consumer reports and information using big data analytics, to developing mobile applications integrated into other local businesses, and more!

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The one picture I was allowed to take was a giant mock-up of an iPhone used by the Bank for demos!

After the Expo, the final event of the night was the awards ceremony, where each awardee was recognized as an Aspiration in Computing National Winner. We got dressed up and took pictures in front of the NCWIT banner, around the hotel, and inside the event hall, which was completely transformed into the NCWIT colors of green and blue. As each winner was invited to the stage, emcees read a quick biography of their accomplishments and dreams for the future. I was incredibly humbled and inspired by their great work and revolutionary projects.

We received many gifts from the Bank of America, as well as beautiful glass awards for each winner and their school. After taking group pictures on stage and by the iconic red chairs, my time at the NCWIT National Awards Weekend was over, as I had a flight to catch in an hour.

As the plane left the runway to head back to DC, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly lucky I had the opportunity to attend such an event. Even though I attend a STEM magnet school, I still feel the effects of being one of only a couple of female students in a predominantly male classroom. It had been a long time, perhaps one of the first times, where I felt completely comfortable expressing my passion for the subject, my excitement for the projects I was working on, and felt accepted by the people I was with.

Organizations like NCWIT truly do empower girls to persevere through the challenges of being a women and technology and develop a community we can turn to for help and guidance. I myself am an example of NCWIT’s impact, as my first true introduction to computer science was through an NCWIT workshop. I hope, through the work of my own organization and my involvement in NCWIT’s programs, I can be a part of the journey towards a future where I will not be regarded as a girl who happens to be a technologist, but rather a technologist who happens to be a girl.

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Pictures of the awards ceremony!
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