Duke University professors Nicki Washington and Shaundra Daily. Photos courtesy of Duke University

A pair of Duke University professors is taking the collective impact approach to diversifying the computer science industry.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded computer science professor Alicia Nicki Washington and Shaundra Daily, an electrical and computer engineering professor, a nearly $10 million grant over the next five years to establish the Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing Education (AIICE). Through a collective impact approach targeting educators, policies and practices, AIICE aims to increase the entry, retention and degree completion rates of high school and undergraduate students from groups that are historically underrepresented in computing.

Their work is one of five newly created alliances utilizing $50 million under NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion Across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) to address diversity, inclusion and participation challenges in STEM.

White and Asian workers account for the majority of workers in STEM-related jobs, according to the Pew Research Center. The professors say it results in lack of diversity in school settings and workplace cultures but also creates biased technologies — such as facial recognition and predictive policing — that negatively impact and exclude non-dominant identities. 

“Creating pathways to success for a STEM workforce reflective of the U.S. population is of national importance to ensuring America’s competitiveness in a global research landscape,” Sylvia Butterfield, acting assistant director for NSF’s education and human resources directorate, said in the Aug. 3 announcement.

Black and Hispanic adults are less likely to earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) than other degree fields. In the latest data on computer science, Pew reported that Black students earned 9% of bachelor’s degrees, 13% of master’s degrees and 7% of all research doctorates.

Washington, who earned her first computer science degree from Johnson C. Smith University, said their research team has a unique opportunity to transform the discipline by blending aspects of social science with computer science to create systemic change by:

  • increasing student and educator knowledge of identity and related topics; 
  • supporting computer science educators and leaders nationwide in fostering academic cultures that are more inclusive of non-dominant identities; and 
  • increasing policy-driven changes to computer science education in K-12 schools and higher education that infuse identity-inclusive strategies.

If successful, Washington and Daily predict that AIICE will directly impact 7,000 high school computer science teachers, 2,000 postsecondary computer science faculty and staff, 5,000 teaching assistants and 500 computing departments in the United States. In turn, the educators will impact 525,000 high schoolers and 35,000 undergraduate computer science students nationwide.

“Prior efforts emphasize that it’s simply about access, courses and training. But that’s not the case when they’re in a class…dealing with problematic peers and faculty who then go on to lead these companies and shape the technology industry,” she said in a recent article for Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. “We need to be creating better graduates.”

Maya Hamilton, 22, has been interested in computer science ever since her Durham elementary school debuted a computer programming class when she was in the fifth grade. Now, two months into her career as a software engineer at JPMorgan Chase’s regional headquarters in Dallas, Texas, Hamilton was happy to hear about the NSF initiative as she reflected on her experience as a computer science major at UNC Charlotte.

Photo courtesy of Maya Hamilton

She described the loneliness she felt as a Black woman walking into classrooms, sometimes with 100 people, and seeing only a handful of students who looked like her. 

“Most of the time, it was just white males,” said the spring 2021 graduate. “It made me feel like I didn’t belong there, especially when it came to group projects. It seemed like they didn’t want to work with me, or they wouldn’t take me seriously or not include me in conversations or decisions when it came to projects. So, I had to learn how to speak up for myself.”

Hamilton said that if it wasn’t for an introduction to the school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, which provided her support and exposed her to internship opportunities, she would’ve dropped the computer science major.

Through the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of the Alliance, the research team believes better-trained graduates will enter technical positions more aware of identity-related issues.

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Katrina covers Charlotte's Black business scene for QCity Metro. She's a Miami transplant, pescatarian and lover of the arts. She earned a public relations degree from the University of Florida. Got a...

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