STEM POWER: Bethany Edmunds

B.C.'s Most Influential Women 2018 - Computer Science

Credit: Courtesy of BCIT

Associate dean, computing, British Columbia Institute of Technology

Before Bethany Edmunds joined BCIT, she was headed for a career in academic research. Edmunds enjoyed computer programming as a child, and when she attended Rowan University in her native New Jersey to study elementary education, a female mentor and academic adviser encouraged her to pursue it. Having earned a BSc in computer science, Edmunds wrote flight simulators for the Federal Aviation Administration, but she soon decided to do a PhD, specializing in machine learning, at Rutgers University.

While working in Rutgers’ Laboratory for Real-Life Reinforcement Learning, developing small autonomous vehicles that learned to drive on different surfaces, she met her Canadian husband, who persuaded her to move to Vancouver in 2008. “Since coming to BCIT, I’ve come back to my passion of education,” says Edmunds, who began as a computer systems and technology instructor in 2010 and was named associate dean last year. “I focus a lot on making sure that we can train the talent that’s needed.”

BCIT offers a two-year diploma in machine learning—a rarity in a field where most training is at the research level, Edmunds says. Machine learning is decision-making based on previous data, she explains, citing Netflix, which recommends what to watch next by tracking viewing habits. “It’s everywhere now, and so people that are going to be any kind of software developer need to know what’s out there,” Edmunds says. The BCIT diploma teaches students to use existing machine learning tools at companies such as Inc. and Microsoft.

Edmunds has worked with Microsoft on its DigiGirlz skills development and mentoring conference and spoken at Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) events. With women comprising just 15 to 20 percent of BCIT computer science students in any given term, attracting and keeping them is a challenge, she admits. “And so we want to try and build that mentorship,” Edmunds says. “As much as I’m trying to give back, I’m also trying to get people from industry to come in and speak to our students.”

How can we get more women into STEM?

BCIT is working with the B.C. government to bring computer science into the K–12 education system. It’s important for students to get a chance to see if the field is right for them, Edmunds says.