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New Partnership Aims to Help UMD Further Diversify D.C. Region’s Tech Ecosystem

National Push by Break Through Tech Is Part of the Gender Equality in Tech Cities Initiative

By Abby Robinson

Students at computer with VR headset

Photo by John T. Consoli

UMD’s Break Through Tech program will include a summer program for rising first-year students, a new introductory computer science course sequence, a paid, three-week mini-internship, and the development of a network of individuals in the D.C. region who identify as women and non-binary to support, engage and motivate one another. At left, local middle schoolers attend the CompSciConnect summer program hosted by UMD's Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing.

The University of Maryland will build programs to propel more students who identify as women and non-binary into tech education—and ultimately tech careers—thanks to a new partnership with Break Through Tech. The goal is to increase the number of these students graduating with a tech degree at UMD by 12.5 percentage points by 2026, through curriculum innovation, career access and community building.

“The University of Maryland is committed to making computing inclusive and accessible for all,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “Break Through Tech will contribute to our efforts with programs focused on increasing the graduation rate and success of the nearly 1,000 women in our computer science and information science majors.”

UMD and George Mason University will be joining Break Through Tech as it expands from its hubs in New York City and Chicago to D.C. This expansion was made possible through the Gender Equality in Tech (GET) Cities initiative, which is led by a $50 million investment from Pivotal Ventures, the investment and incubation company created by Melinda Gates, as well as an additional $7 million investment from the Cognizant U.S. Foundation and Verizon. UMD’s Break Through Tech program will be administered by the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing in partnership with the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS) and the College of Information Studies (iSchool).

“Break Through Tech's programs and the expansion of our existing programs will greatly increase impact toward improving computing education and successful degree completion by a greater diversity of participants,” said Jandelyn Plane, director of the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing and director of the Maryland Center for Women in Computing. Plane is also a principal lecturer in the Department of Computer Science.

UMD’s Break Through Tech program will include:

  • A summer program for rising first-year students designed to ignite interest in tech by teaching them how to code real-world, mission-driven applications;
  • New, innovative introductory computer science course sequences;
  • A paid, three-week mini-internship (called a Sprinternship) program, which gives first- and second-year students a resume credential and real-world experience to make them more competitive when applying for a paid summer tech internship; and
  • The development of a networked community of individuals who identify as women and non-binary—both peer-to-peer and student-to-professional—in the D.C. metro area to support, engage and motivate one another.

“We have one of the largest groups of women and non-binary computing students in the country here at the University of Maryland,” said CMNS Dean Amitabh Varshney. “We are excited that this new grant from Break Through Tech will allow us to engage these students the minute they step on campus through experiential learning and networking with the regional computing community, which will lead to long-term career success.”

In Break Through Tech’s founding city, Cornell Tech partnered with the City University of New York, which saw the number of women pursuing computer science bachelor's degrees increase 61% since Break Through Tech New York launched in 2016.

“Participating in the Break Through Tech program to increase the graduation rate of women in UMD's computer science and information science programs aligns with the iSchool's long history of advocacy,” said iSchool Dean Keith Marzullo. “The program, which will bring together computing majors from both CMNS and the iSchool, will also serve as a way to rethink how we can more collaboratively deliver education at UMD to better serve other underserved populations.”

The combination of the current economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the national awareness of COVID’s outsized impact across gender, race and other underrepresented identities in society, makes this a critical time to scale a movement toward equity in tech—an industry with the growth potential to support the kind of economic empowerment that should be available to everyone. 

“GET DC will impact an emerging tech hub that’s bustling with opportunity for women and underrepresented groups in an industry that continues to trend majority male and white,” said Judith Spitz, founder and executive director at Break Through Tech. “Break Through Tech will work toward tackling two key hurdles for women—access and experience.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.