Why has Pinterest evolved as a social media site primarily for women? Why are birth control pills not available for men? What guides the physical appearance of robots created at Virginia Tech?

Meagan South of Clarksville, Tenn., a senior majoring in sociology and minoring in gender, science, and technology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, has been pondering these questions for a while and working on the upcoming Gender, Bodies and Technology conference since last fall.

The May 1-3 event is an opportunity for students enrolled in Christine Labuski's Gender, Bodies, and Technology credit course to hear from keynote speakers whose works have been part of their class assignments. South is also a student in this inaugural class.

The aim of the conference and the resulting undergraduate class is to bring together the worlds of gender studies and technology disciplines. 

"Technology is always gendered," says Labuski, assistant professor of women's and gender studies. "The access that our bodies have to technology and other forms of augmentation is always structured by gender, as well as by other dimensions of our identity such as race, class, and physical ability. We want our students to know that a wide range of scholars and artists have been thinking about these things for a long time, from disciplines as diverse as history, film studies, computer science, and design, in addition to the social sciences."

South has been involved in most of the conference planning stages, from helping with the call for proposals, researching departments throughout the country for potential attendees, to assisting with paper reviews, and learning about 3-D printing technology. 

The latter involved the skills of Omavi Walker of Virginia Beach, Va., a sophomore computer science major in the College of Engineering, who formatted the code that will result in a 3-D printed item for each conference participant. Walker is also the official blogger for the event.

"I think it's interesting that the course is so dynamic. The content will evolve each year based on the work of the keynote speakers," South says. "For example, two of this year's keynote speakers explore the virtual world of Second Life in their academic work. One of the speakers, Jennifer Robertson, has written a book about the use of domestic and social robots in Japan, so we’ll be having classroom discussions based on these readings and the conference presentations."

Kathleen Driscoll of Alexandria, Va., a senior majoring in psychology in the College of Science, is also playing several roles for the conference. As well as participating in one of the performances, she will be helping with registration, assisting speakers and participants, and sitting in on various sessions in between. 

"I think the conference will be a good culmination of what I’ve learned in class," said Driscoll. "This intersection of feminism, perception, and how science and technology impacts women and our world has helped me to become a more open-minded person, and this way of thinking has carried over to my other courses."

The first Gender, Bodies and Technology conference, held in 2010, was initiated by faculty in the Virginia Tech’s Women's and Gender Studies program and attracted international participation from more than 120 scholars. This biennial, interdisciplinary forum explores relationships between technology and gender, race, class, and identity and pays particular attention to bodies as a site where these relationships can be investigated.

This year's conference at the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center at 901 Prices Fork Road features keynote presentations, performances, discussion groups, and more than 100 paper presentations.