15 Colleges Revamping Computer Sci Programs To Appeal to Women and Minorities

An organization that runs programs to advance women in computing and a college that has seen success in its own efforts to woo non-traditional students to computing has launched a new program intended to help 15 American institutions increase the percentage of their undergraduate majors who are female or students of color. The Anita Borg Institute and Harvey Mudd College will be working with the undergraduate computer science departments at schools that include Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of North Texas and Villanova University to pursue a broad set of students through multiple approaches.

Schools participating in the Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) initiative may expand their outreach to high school teachers and students, revise introductory computer science courses to make them less intimidating and more appealing to a more diverse group of students, build community among students and work on developing majors that cross disciplines, such as computer science and biology.

Institutions that participate will also provide data for a research study that will document the results of their efforts. They'll also receive $30,000 per year for three years to help support their work.

BRAID was given a big push by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a speech she recently made at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting. Financial support for BRAID comes from four companies: Facebook, Google, Intel and Microsoft. The program will be co-managed by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd, and Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute.

Over the past eight years, Harvey Mudd's computer science department worked "diligently" to increase enrollment of female and minority students in its undergraduate courses. Today, that program has a student composition that is 40 percent female. Faculty from the southern California institution will visit participating programs at other schools to offer advice and feedback on their efforts.

At Missouri S&T, seven percent of undergraduate computer science students are female compared to the national average of 17 percent. The university has already revamped its introductory programming courses to feature assignments that focus on what it calls in a statement, "more exciting, contemporary, real-world problems" that include domains in the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences.

"Our students will learn and practice firsthand the importance of using problems of an interdisciplinary nature that have societal relevance to teach computer science," said Sajal Das, chair of computer science.

To engender a sense of community among women in the department, the university will host monthly events through its Association of Computing Machinery-Women's chapter, including field trips and mentoring opportunities.

Jennifer Leopold, associate professor of computer science and associate chair for undergraduate studies and outreach, will also visit high schools in the region to talk to students about computer science education, research and careers and to encourage female students to consider the university.

At Villanova, the university views a renewed focus on women and other under-represented groups as not just about "fairness," but also about the "wellbeing of organizations and the national economy." According to Lillian Cassel, who chairs the university's department of computing sciences, "The growing awareness of major corporations of the need for a more diversified workforce makes the BRAID project particularly timely. There is good reason to expect that the additional women and minority students who receive attention through this project will be eagerly sought after by major corporations."

U North Texas recently established an undergraduate concentration in computational life sciences to familiarize students in computer science to problems that originate in the life sciences. Previous offerings of these courses have generated "significant interest" by women and minorities. The department of computer science and engineering has also committed to working with other departments in the life sciences (such as biology, chemistry, environmental science and geography) to introduce their students to computational approaches rooted in computer science.

"The BRAID initiative is the most exciting project I've been involved with to expand diversity in computer science," said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd. "I'm thrilled by how enthusiastic department chairs have been about taking on this initiative to change their culture in a way that will make it more inclusive to underrepresented groups, including women and minorities. It's also inspirational to see how quickly the four companies stepped up to fund the initiative and the research study on effective educational practices."

The 12 other institutions that are participating in BRAID are:

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