When minority computer scientists--or computer scientists who are women, for that matter--look around a computer room, meeting, or classroom, they rarely see other women or people of color. Patricia J. Teller, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Texas at El Paso, and Valerie Taylor, Ph.D., head of the Department of Computer Science at Texas A&M University in College Station, are working to change that.

Teller is chair and Taylor is chair-elect of the Coalition to Diversify Computing (CDC), an organization that combines the resources of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Computing Research Association (CRA), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE-CS). The CDC seeks to increase minority participation in computer science by helping students and faculty successfully manage the transition to computing-based careers in academia, federal labs, and industry.

It also intends to increase the available pool of minority and female faculty members through partnerships and mentoring. Current emphasis is placed on: (1) recruitment of minority undergraduates into MS/Ph.D. programs, (2) retention of minority graduate students enrolled in MS/Ph.D. programs, and (3) transition of minority MS/Ph.D. graduates into academia and industry.

The CDC has its work cut out for it. According to the 2003-2004 Taulbee Survey, in 2004 only 1.1% of the doctorates in computer engineering and computer science went to Hispanics, 1.5% to African-Americans, and none to Native Americans or Alaskan Natives. Females were also sparsely represented. Moreover, current student numbers in the pipeline are just as dismal. In 2004, 1.3% of enrolled Ph.D. students were Hispanic, 1.8% were African-American, and only 0.2% were Native American.

Teller works at a Hispanic-serving institution and understands the need to change things now. "The population of the U.S. is changing," she says. "Not long in the future, Hispanics will make up a large part of the population of California, Texas, Arizona, and other states. If the United States wants to remain a world force in computing, more people from underrepresented groups must major in computer science in college and go on to graduate school."

Networking

CDC membership consists of 20 companies, universities, and federal labs and crosses a range of computer-related disciplines. The roll includes heavy hitters such as Boeing and Sandia Labs. These industrial partnerships are important because once women and minorities reach industry, if that is their goal, they must also fit in.

The key to this, according to CDC leaders, is helping them find role models, providing funding to attend conferences, increasing their confidence, and generally making them aware of the opportunities that exist.

To this end, the CDC has created virtual networking communities and even some remote research opportunities, where students can collaborate on projects distant from their own institutions.


Heather Wake with Field Programmable Custom Computing Machines (FCCM) Conference organizers, Ken Pocek (left) and Jeff Arnold (right).

Conferences

In October of this year, 250 students, faculty, and CDC members will gather in Albuquerque to attend the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference in Albuquerque. [Richard A. Tapia is a mathematician and professor in the Department of Computation and Applied Mathematics at Rice University in Houston.] Headed by Pamela J. Williams, Ph.D., a senior member of the technical staff at Sandia Labs, the two-and-a-half day event, dubbed "Diversity of Scholars--A Tapestry of Discovery," will provide many networking opportunities. Participants will also attend technical presentations in computer science and hear talks by Mark Dean, IBM Fellow and vice president of systems at IBM Research, and Sandra Begay-Campbell, former executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and a member of the technical staff at Sandia Labs.

But what if you are a student and don't have money to attend the CDC conference or another professional computer science meeting? The CDC provides financial assistance to students from underrepresented ethnic groups in science, technology, engineering, and math, with a focus on computing, to attend various conferences. This program, called "Sending Students/Mentors to Technical Conferences," stipulates that students must be accompanied by a faculty mentor. The idea here, Teller says, is to provide role models. In many cases this has worked to the advantage of student and mentor alike.


Advisor, Damian Rouson (left) and student Omar Santiago (right) at the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering.

Outreach

The CDC also has several projects that disperse information to interested people at institutions across the country. The "Distinguished Lecturer Series" supports researchers from underrepresented groups by discussing the technologies and relationships needed to be successful in computer-related disciplines, while the "Traveling Academic Forum" organizes workshops that provide junior faculty with a better understanding of how to climb the academic ladder and achieve tenure.

Other programs to increase minority participation in computer science are in the works. The "Workshop for Minority Junior Faculty" will offer grant-writing workshops and deal with other problems minority faculty members often face. "Collaborative Research Experiences for Undergraduates," a joint program between CDC and CRA-W (the "W" stands for "Women"), will make research opportunities available to teams of undergrads during the academic year. The undergrad research program is just getting underway, and Teller is excited because she may have four students work with her over the summer. Finally, a database of students and members, which is now being refined, will provide networking opportunities and a hunting list of qualified candidates for the IT industry.

Both Teller and Taylor stress that to help the CDC reach its goals, one doesn't have to be a woman or a person of color--just be a person working professionally in computer science (academia, government, or industry) and interested in helping diversify the field. As in other fields, becoming a mentor is important and means giving of one's self. The investment will reap innumerable rewards.

Taylor describes another reason why all this is so important. "If you look around the room and other people look like you, you can imagine yourself reaching their level of success," she says. "You have to be able to imagine it to make it happen."

Star Lawrence is a freelance journalist based in the Phoenix area.