Untapped computer scientists | Science

Underrepresented U.S. women of color (UWOC)—Black Americans, Latina Americans, Native Americans, and Indigenous Pacific Islanders—have long been underrepresented among Ph.D. recipients in computer science. The number of computer science Ph.D. degrees annually awarded to UWOC is miniscule. Moreover, even when compared with white women, the discrepancies are overwhelming. The Computer […]

Underrepresented U.S. women of color (UWOC)—Black Americans, Latina Americans, Native Americans, and Indigenous Pacific Islanders—have long been underrepresented among Ph.D. recipients in computer science. The number of computer science Ph.D. degrees annually awarded to UWOC is miniscule. Moreover, even when compared with white women, the discrepancies are overwhelming. The Computer Research Association’s Taulbee Survey revealed that in 2019, only seven UWOC (U.S. citizens) received Ph.D. degrees in computer science—a mere 0.43% of all computer science doctorates attained that year and only 2.1% of the doctorates awarded to all women.

A sincere will to increase the number of UWOC in computer science graduate programs may be effective in getting more undergraduate UWOC to enroll. A start would be to encourage undergraduate UWOC to engage in computer science research and then to pursue a computer science graduate degree. Another tactic is to establish communication with other computer science departments to identify UWOC who are Ph.D. prospects and recruit them to graduate programs. Once enrolled, they must be provided financial support, effective mentoring, and a supportive environment. To reduce the sense of isolation, faculty leaders should avoid putting UWOC in situations where they are the only underrepresented persons of color. In addition, faculty and students should ensure that their UWOC colleagues engage with and build relational networks within the computer science academic and professional communities. This will require institutions and departments to understand the existing systems in which UWOC are minoritized and marginalized, and a commitment to dismantling them.

Many computer science departments express the desire to increase diversity by enrolling more U.S. citizens of color in their doctoral programs. Although strides have been made at universities such as Clemson, Auburn, and the University of Florida (UF), more favorable outcomes are welcomed. Computer science departments at Auburn, Clemson, and UF share similar features, such as established connections with historically black colleges and universities and the recruitment of faculty of color. For example, from 2014 to 2020, the UF Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) enrolled 19 UWOC; thus far, eight have graduated with a Ph.D. degree. Of these eight women, six were Black Americans, one was Latina, and one was Native American. Among the remaining 11, three are currently doctoral candidates. Only two have left CISE without a Ph.D. degree. Compared to the national 0.43% UWOC (U.S. citizens) who graduated with a computer science Ph.D., the graduation trend at CISE is encouraging and is an example of what can be achieved.

To promote retention and graduation of UWOC, CISE places students with faculty who foster research cultures and provide holistic advising that enhance success. Further, students receive funding to attend conferences on research and community building, such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, the Association for Computing Machinery Conference, and the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference. Students and faculty attend these conferences to network and broaden the participation of underrepresented students in computing. CISE Ph.D. students are encouraged to guide undergraduate students in research and to connect with other graduate students and faculty across departments. They also engage in organizations that provide professional development opportunities, such as the Black Graduate Student Association and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. Enrolled students receive sufficient funding to relieve them from financial pressures and are placed in established student communities that provide ongoing peer support. Students thrive in CISE’s culture of diversity. The department has worked to strategically infuse culturally relevant pedagogy into the curriculum. The department faculty currently has four Black American women, two Black American men, and one Hispanic American man. These faculty members provide underrepresented students of color with role models who come from similar cultures, which encourages success and mitigates feelings of isolation.

The UF CISE department has recognized an existing pool of potential computer scientists among UWOC and has shown the willingness to draw from a source proven to be fruitful. With sincere will, other institutions are encouraged to do the same.

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