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Meeting Grace Hopper

I recently attended the 2010 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. I had gone mainly to attend the K-12 Computing Teachers Workshop, but got a chance on October 1 to see some of the main conference events. It was certainly interesting being one of the 50-100 males among the 2100 conference attendees.

While attending the conference, I remembered my meeting with Commodore Grace Hopper some 25 or so years previously. I was part of a summer program for high school kids in the DC area to intern in the physical sciences in government labs. As part of this program, we had various government speakers presenting once a week. I don't remember any of the other speakers, though I imagine they were trying to convince us to major in STEM in college and then to go to graduate school and work for the US government. But I'll never forget the day this elderly lady showed up to speak. She was not more than 4' 10" or so, and was wearing all of her military regalia on a completely white uniform. She looked too old to be active military, and I was wondering why the Navy couldn't have sent a "better" representative to talk about the importance of STEM as it relates to work being done in the Navy, or whatever it was the Navy felt they needed to tell us.

Then Commodore Hopper started talking, to a roomful of mostly white males. (In the 1980s, Chemistry and Physics had many of the problems of gender and racial imbalance that plague computing today.) She told us many of the stories for which she has since become well known, of finding the first computer "bug" to her work with early computers to what a "nano-second" was. (I didn't remember her story about nano-seconds until seeing interviews much later.) By the time she was done speaking, she had the entire room completely caught up in the excitement and importance of science and of discovery. I knew then that I would do something in STEM career-wise. (Throughout college, I was a physical chemistry major. I graduated with degrees in mathematics and chemistry, not going into CS until graduate school.)

The truth was that at the time, I had no idea how famous Commodore Hopper was. It wasn't until years later, when I had become a computer scientist, and came across a picture of her next to one of her stories that I realized it was she who had presented to our small group back in high school, and how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to have spent a couple of hours with her. I wish we still had comparable ambassadors for our discipline, to excite today's youth!

Anyway, it was a great conference (and perhaps worthy of a future blog piece), but I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on Grace Hopper nearly as much.

Stephen Cooper
CSTA Vice President

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