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Departmental initiatives to support diversity in CS (#1062)

Topics/tags: Important issues

Recently, a student wrote to the department with a question. It went something like this.

I know that the CS department cares about diversity, and I know some of the things it does to promote and support diversity, but I’d like to know more.

As you might guess, the task of responding fell to me. Here’s what I wrote, more or less [1]. As you might expect, I had trouble keeping my response short [2]. Now that I’ve started turning the email message into a musing, I see that I had an earlier musing that lays out more of my rationales for supporting diversity. I also described some of the approaches we take [3]. That’s okay; it’s been a few years and it’s helpful to reflect again on these issues. But I should send the student those links.

Dear Student [4],

Prof. Weinman tells me that you are interested in ways in which the department support/promotes diversity. I’d love to have an opportunity to chat with you about that, perhaps after the semester is over. Let me know what works best for you. For now, let me provide some background.

Many of our activities stem from a basic philosophy, which I tend to phrase as something like Computer technology is changing the world. Hence, the development of that technology must represent a diverse variety of perspectives. As computer science educators, it is our responsibility to attract and support students from diverse backgrounds.

There’s more to it, of course, including thought about how computing fits into Grinnell’s mission (for better or for worse, the ability to build and use computing technology, and the understanding to critique it, is a central way to serve the common good). And we understand that another kind of social justice is at play: Jobs in the computing industry pay well and are perhaps one of the best ways to achieve social mobility. (We don’t particularly like that society has decided to reward these jobs more than others we consider more important—such as teaching, social work, or music and art—but we acknowledge it.)

So, what do we do? A variety of things. And it’s not just the faculty (I include Sarah Dahlby Albright, our Peer Education Coordinator, in my concept of faculty). This is, after all, Grinnell. One of the key characteristics of Grinnell is that we empower students to take the lead.

We have tried to design our curriculum based on research on diversity in CS; at times, we even take the lead. The use of pair programming and group projects is known to be better for people who self identify as female. (We also acknowledge that there can be issues. It is, for example, why many of us do activities related to how one treats their partner in 151 and other classes.). Active learning has been shown to be more inclusive. Maria Klawe has noted that themed introductory courses can promote diversity, which is why we have three flavors of CSC 151 (image making, data science, digital humanities) [5].

We use Scheme in the intro class to help level the playing field (ah, the joy of sports metaphors). Evidence suggests that white males are more likely to have taken CS in high school. But Scheme is so different than other languages that the prior experience does not help. We also make that explicit; our goal is to provide a course in which everyone can succeed and which prior experience should be unlikely to help.

We try to pick our peer educators in ways to support diversity. It is important for students to see that others they identify with are successful and leaders. While it would be unfair, and probably illegal, to pick only mentors from groups traditionally underrepresented in CS, we do strive to ensure that these groups are appropriately represented in our mentors, tutors, and graders. As importantly, we work to train our peer educators to understand how to address issues of diversity in their work, to spot and address hidden (and less h idea) biases.

We run the CPUs (Computing Peers United) program, pairing upper-level students with introductory students. The CPUs were a student-initiated project, but the department provides some management through the skills of the wonderful Sarah Dahlby Albright as well as some funding.

We support the Women and Gender Minorities in Computing (WGMC) group and mailing list. Unfortunately, that group has been on a bit of hiatus this year. My understanding is that those who had hoped to run the group found their lives more complicated than they had expected. I hope to see it return to greater activity next year. Perhaps you’d be interested in helping? [6]

We scrounge for funding to send students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. Those conferences are expensive (it usually costs upward of $1000 to send each student), so we cannot send many, but we hope that by sending a few, the benefits can flow to others in the department. We also send almost everyone who applies to the Missouri/Iowa/Nebraska/Kansas celebration of Women in Computing (MINK/WIC) as that’s more affordable.

Through faculty contributions (and now alumni contributions), we created a College fund to support diversity and inclusion in computing [7]. That fund allows us to send a few students to Hopper and Tapia each year. It also supports WGMC and other diversity activities in the department.

We provide each declared major with a This is what a Grinnell Computer Scientist looks like t-shirt. We hoped to create a wall of photos that showed the diversity of our department, but other activities interfered.

We conduct outreach activities to encourage diversity in the next generation. For three years, we ran summer code camps for middle-school and elementary-school students that allowed them to explore CS through a lens that had been shown to diversify computing at the college level; we also worked to include issues of computing for social code in those curricula. We run a weekly code club for middle-school students. (By We, I mean Sarah Dahlby Albright and students who work with her.). Sarah also runs an elementary school math club for girls.

We do our best to encourage a friendly and inclusive community. (Our SEPC takes the lead, but we also help with events like the CS Table and Thursday extras, as well as extra-credit practices in some courses.). I’ve been told we are known for having a good community in our department, but I may just hear the good things. It’s definitely been harder as we’ve grown from a dozen or so majors per class year to sixty.

We try to reach out to incoming students from groups traditionally underrepresented in CS (first-gen, women, domestic students of color) who might be interested in CS. That’s hard. Might be interested in CS is difficult to assess. And we don’t have access to student demographic data. But we try.

There’s almost certainly more that I am forgetting. And there’s more work to be done. We would welcome your suggestions. I look forward to the opportunity to speak with you.

Sorry for writing so much. My understanding was that you wanted details. (I also have a tendency [1] to write a lot.)

Hoping you are safe and well in these troubling times,

– SamR

Postscript: I was saddened to discover that when I reread my early posting on diversity, I had not acknowledged neurodiversity. What was I thinking? More precisely, why wasn’t I thinking? I may need to write a new version of that musing.

Postscript: As I said in the introduction, it turns out that I had already written two musings about these issues. I don’t like to let my work go unnoticed, so I also sent a follow-up message to the student.

Dear Student,

Just in case my earlier message was not long enough, I thought I’d pass along two ’blog posts I made a few years ago about diversity in CS at Grinnell which provide a bit more information that may be of use.

The first, available at discusses some of my underlying philosophy about diversity in computing, a philosophy much of with is shared with the department.

The second, available at, provides a bit more detail on some of the initiatives I mentioned in my earlier letter. I am sad to report that we are not doing as well at building and maintaining gender diversity as we were at that time. I think the change has to do with external factors, rather than internal, but I am not sure. In any case, we still have much to do.

As I said, I look forward to the opportunity to chat with you.

Be well and take care,

– SamR

[1] I wrote have a tendency when I could have written tend. I think that says it all.

[2] I’ve made a few edits as I turned it into musing form. Perhaps I should have made those edits before sending the message. Perhaps I should have spell checked. Oh well, that’s how things go.

[3] And perhaps even keeping it coherent.

[4] Those were essays #63 and #67, written more than three years ago. It’s nice to be reminded that writing about these issues was an early priority.

[5] Yes, I used their name. Now I’m wondering if I should follow a colleague’s model and refer to the student as Scholar [Last Name].

[6] We were running themed intros long before Klawe made this statement. We are often a leader in these kinds of activities.

[7] That applies to any student reading this musing. Or at least any Grinnell CS student reading this musing.

[8] If readers of this musing care to donate, we’d appreciate it.

Version 1.0 of 2020-05-03.