Professor tries to instill passion for math, science

Talking with Lenore Blum

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Lenore Blum has been teaching math and computer science at elite institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley, Mills College and Carnegie Mellon University since the late 1960s.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Lenore Blum, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, recently received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
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Lenore Blum
Job: Distinguished career professor of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University.
Age: 62
Hometown: New York City; lives in Shadyside.
Education: Bachelor's degree, mathematics, Simmons College, 1963; doctoral degree, mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1968.
Career: 1968-73: Post-doctoral fellow and lecturer, University of California, Berkeley; 1973-74: visiting assistant professor, Mills College, Oakland, Calif.; 1974-87: founder, head and co-head, mathematics and computer science department, Mills College; 1979-96: Lettis-Villard Research Professor, Mills College; 1984-85: visiting professor, City University of New York Graduate Center; 1987: visiting scientist, IBM TJ Watson Research Center, New York; 1988-99: research scientist, Theory Group, International Computer Science Institute, Berkeley; 1992-96: deputy director, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Berkeley; 1996-98: visiting professor, City University of Hong Kong; 1999-present: distinguished career professor of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University.

But put her in a computer lab with a bunch of middle-school girls who aren't especially computer savvy, and Blum really gets to pursue her passion -- inspiring young students, especially girls, to consider careers in math and science.

"All my outreach is to hook people by getting them interested in the subject," said Blum, 62, a CMU distinguished career professor of computer science.

Blum loves the challenge of working with young teens, many who use the computer only to exchange instant messages with their friends, she suspects.

Earlier this year, her wide-ranging efforts to encourage young girls in math and science fields were recognized with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. The award carries a $10,000 prize that Blum expects to use for undergraduate research programs.

Blum believes girls, for the most part, don't spend as much time around computers as boys -- especially when it comes to learning what makes the technology work. "Boys are given more opportunity," she said. "Parents are not giving girls electronics to put computers together."

Some statistics back up Blum's beliefs. A survey released in May by Bayer Corp. showed a significant gender gap when it came to encouraging girls to enter science and engineering fields.

While 64 percent of the parents surveyed had purchased science-related toys such as microscopes, telescopes and experiment kits for their sons in the past year, only 47 percent had bought such items for their daughters.

As a girl growing up in New York City and Venezuela who loved solving long division problems, Blum never experienced such biases at home. Her mother taught science in a New York City high school, so it was taken for granted she would pursue the subject she found most stimulating.

But her high school math teacher advised her against studying math in college. So she ended up entering Carnegie Tech in 1959 as an architecture major after being turned away by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which at the time accepted only a limited number of women.

She eventually switched her major to math and left Carnegie Tech for Boston when she married Manuel Blum, who was then working at MIT and is now a professor of computer science at CMU.

Their son, Avrim, born while Lenore was a graduate student, is also a professor in CMU's computer science department.

After completing her undergraduate degree at Simmons College, Blum earned her doctorate at MIT and then headed to California when she and Manuel received offers to work at Berkeley. By the mid-1970s, Blum had been named to head the first department of mathematics and computer science at a private, all-women's school, Mills College, in adjacent Oakland.

That's when her mentoring efforts really took off. She helped to launch the Association for Women in Mathematics and was part of a group in the San Francisco Bay Area that gathered regularly to discuss ways to get girls interested in math and science. "What worked was hands-on role models," Blum said.

The discussion group, eventually formalized as the Math/Science Network, came up with Expanding Your Horizons, a one-day conference for middle-school girls held in hundreds of locations nationwide each year. It includes panel discussions by women holding jobs in math, science and engineering, and sessions in computer or science labs where the participants engage in hands-on problem solving.

"You can't talk it -- you have to do it," said Blum who estimated that 75,000 girls across the United States have participated since Expanding Your Horizons was launched in 1976.

"Years ago, girls were dropping out after two years of math in high school. Our goal is for girls to do four years of high school math, then do calculus in college and go on to careers in engineering."

At CMU, Blum is faculty adviser to Women@SCS, a support group for women in computer science, and is a member of the President's Diversity Advisory Council. Women@SCS has a road show it takes to middle and high schools to expose students to computer scientists and their careers.

Females currently account for about 30 percent of the undergraduates entering CMU's computer science department each year, an indicator that women are "still not viewing it as an appropriate field for the future," Blum said. "We've done a poor job of introducing computer science in grades K-12."

Blum thinks interest in the field has also been hurt by the outsourcing of computer jobs overseas and the dot-com collapse.

Beyond mentoring, teaching and research, she's also immersed in a proposal for a new high-tech center called Project Olympus. Blum's idea is to raise private and public funding for a center based at CMU where 50 scholars could work for two years on innovative technology projects that could possibly spin out as private commercial ventures.

The scholars wouldn't necessarily have to be CMU graduates, but the center "would help keep talent here," she said. "We at CMU produce the best and most sought-after product on the planet: our students. Then we export them," Blum said. "Students love Pittsburgh and would stay if they had half a chance."


Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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