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Promoting Diversity in Computer Science at Grinnell

As I wrote in a recent essay, I consider it my responsibility as a computer science educator to look for ways to increase diversity in my discipline. I am fortunate that, for much of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with colleagues who feel the same way.

In some ways, we’ve clearly been successful. We have about 40% women majors at a time in which the average nationwide is under 20%. And we’ve grown in the number of women majors as we’ve more than doubled the size of our major in the past few years. We’re not doing as well among domestic students of color as we should [1], but we’re probably still doing moderately well compared to the atrocious national averages (3.5% black or African-American, 7% Hispanic, Latino, or Latina [2]). Our comparative numbers don’t make me comfortable, and I know that domestic diversity is something we need to work on. We have strong representation of international students from around the globe. I appreciate that many of our international students think about how they can take what they learn about computing at Grinnell, and bring it back to their home countries to make a difference. I don’t know how well we support our LGBTQ+ students, but I hope that we are seen as a supportive department. We haven’t had many options to explore how open we are to differently abled students, but I’d like to think that we’d be seen as supportive. Certainly, our DisAbility Services department notes that we are good collaborators. More broadly, we should also think about intersectionality of these various identities.

Let’s turn back to our primary success. How did we get to 40% women majors? It’s been a long series of steps. One of the first things was to look to more inclusive teaching practices. We’ve been doing active learning in our introductory sequence for more than two decades. Active learning is one of those practices that not only supports women better, but also supports all students better. We’ve also worked very hard to provide an inclusive classroom climate. Small things, like the examples you use in class, can make a huge difference, and we regularly talk about those in the department.

We’ve also looked elsewhere for ideas. When Mark Guzdial and other faculty at Georgia Tech showed that they had better retention of women in introductory computer science (and no less retention of men) when they made image computation a focus of the course, we revamped our course. We didn’t exactly adopt the Georgia Tech approach because, well, they don’t use a functional approach, and we thought it was very important to continue our functional first curriculum. I’m now hoping to design variants of the course that focus on data science and digital humanities because I expect that those are areas that will help diversify our discipline, not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of the kinds of students who study CS.

There’s evidence that white males often enter computing before college because they are more likely to enjoy tinkering with things. In contrast, students from groups underrepresented in computer science want to see that computing has an impact. (Since I think that computing is changing the world, I’d hope that that impact would be self evident. But it doesn’t seem to be.) So we’ve looked at ways to incorporate computing for social good in the curriculum. I designed a module for our third course. More importantly, Janet Davis re-designed our software design course so that its main focus is building software to support nonprofits in our community. I think that helps.

We’ve worked hard to be a friendly, welcoming department. When we designed our new space, we made sure that the Commons was especially welcoming. I like that we’re a place that has a fridge, microwave, and coffee urn that students can use [3]. I appreciate our SEPC’s [4] help in making our department a welcoming space. I appreciate our many majors’ help in making our department a welcoming spaces. It’s certainly changed a lot in the twenty years I’ve been here. When we did recent exit interviews with students, I regularly heard that our labs were a particularly strong space, because you could always count on another student to help you out when you were having difficulty [5]. We have evening tutors to help; but it’s not just them. It’s that almost any student you ask will try to help. That’s a huge change from when I first arrived at Grinnell, and it’s a really important one.

We’ve built a strong and diverse peer education program. Having a variety of students serve as class mentors in the introductory sequence and as evening and individual tutors has shown incoming groups of students that CS is a discipline that lots of people can study. I very much appreciate my Dean’s support in helping us build this program.

At one time, we would give a bit of priority to students from underrepresented groups when selecting research assistants. I think that backfired. I heard from way too many really strong women (including some that were clearly the top student in their graduating year) that they had peers say The only reason you got to do research is because you’re a woman [6]. So I’m explicit that I don’t make sex or race a criterion in selecting students. I select students who think well about the issues I’m working on, who collaborate well with others, and who can handle working with me. Some of those students are women, some are men. Some are from majority groups. Some are from underrepresented groups. The diversity comes naturally, and, because it does so, probably makes more of a difference. It helps that my department has worked hard to provide a wide variety of summer research experiences available to students and that our students leverage them well.

We’ve worked hard to connect students from underrepresented groups to a broader community. We’ve been bringing students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing for a decade [7] and in the past few years we’ve added the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing to the mix. Even when we can’t send all interested students (and we can rarely send all interested students), students usually come back from those conferences energized and enthusiastic about helping their peers [8]. I appreciate the support I’ve received from our HHMI Grants, the Wilson Program, the President’s Office, and our Alumni in making these trips possible.

But you know what? I don’t think it’s any one thing the faculty has done that led to this growth, and it’s not even every thing the faculty has done. Rather, we built a small cadre of majors who cared about these issues (both men and women), and they worked hard to encourage others to consider CS and to include others in the department. In some ways, I think we reached a form of critical mass. This achievement doesn’t mean that we no longer need to worry about these matters; if we don’t keep being supportive, I don’t think critical mass is enough.

Where are we going next? Well, when I talked to my colleague, Narren Brown, about ways to increase our support for domestic students of color, Narren said something like Sam, if you wait until they get to college, it’s too late. Did you know that there are no summer code camps for middle school students in Iowa? And so that’s our next task. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but it’s something I’m going to try. I’m fortunate that Raynard Kington has signed on to support this, so that we don’t have to run the camps as profit-making (or even break-even) ventures and can therefore offer scholarships to large numbers of students of low socio-economic status.

Beyond our outreach to middle-school students, our forthcoming new versions of our introductory course, the continuation of our attempts to provide a supportive environment, and further work to incorporate computing for social good in our courses, I’m not sure what else we will do. But my colleagues and students are creative. I have confidence that we’ll continue to work on these issues. I have high hopes that we will see further successes.

[1] I will also admit that I don’t know how many of our students self identify as domestic students of color.

[2] Table B3: Bachelor’s degrees awarded by ethnicity, from the 2015 Taulbee Survey,

[3] My colleague, Janet Davis, asked whether she should also set up the fridge, coffee pot, and microwave at her new institution. I must say that I think these public appliances work because we have a strong community to support them. Henry and John fill the urn in the morning. Helen used to fill it throughout the day. Henry plunges the sink when students aren’t sensible. The SEPC often washes dishes. And we usually have students who feel some ownership of the commons and try to clean up, including, at times, Peter D, Mari I, Reilly G, and others I’ve missed.

[4] Student Educational Policy Committee. I’ve always said that we should call them the Student Educational Policy, Teaching, and Instruction Committee.

[5] Yes, this assumes that the help is permitted under that assignment’s appropriate collaboration policy.

[6] Actually, given the language that many of our students use, I’m pretty sure that they said because you’re a girl.

[7] We’ve brought both students who self identify as women and students who self identify as men. The ones who self identify as men generally tell me that they think the College is better off spending money on the ones who self identify as women.

[8] I say usually because students also encounter some frustrations at these conferences, often in terms of a lack of understanding of issues of gender identity or physical differences.

Version 1.2.2 of 2017-05-28.