NSF 0420422: ITWF Collaborative Research: Increasing the Representation of Undergraduate Women and Minorities in Computer Science

PI: Dr. Susan Horwitz, coPI at Rutgers: Dr. Barbara G. Ryder

This is a collaborative grant; the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the lead institution, and the collaborators are Beloit College, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Loyola College in Maryland, Purdue University, Rutgers University, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The goal of this research is to implement and evaluate a new approach to increasing the number of undergraduate women and minorities who take Computer Science courses and receive Computer Science degrees at a diverse set of universities. Incoming freshmen in targeted under-represented groups with strong math/science backgrounds will be actively recruited to enroll in an introductory CS course that includes a special additional discussion section. That section will meet for two hours each week during which the students will work in small groups on challenging problems designed to help them gain a thorough and in-depth understanding of the class material, and to increase their enthusiasm for Computer Science. The discussion sections will be run by outstanding undergraduates (at least half of whom will be women and/or minorities), who in turn will receive extensive supervision and training in how to facilitate group learning.

If successful, the program will attract under-represented students who would not otherwise take introductory CS courses, or who might take them and do poorly (and so drop out of the CS program). It will also give them a strong cohort to provide continuing support in future CS classes. Furthermore, the students who serve as undergraduate leaders will gain valuable leadership skills, develop a close relationship with the faculty member who teaches the course and runs the training sessions, and increase their interest in majoring in Computer Science. The proposed program will thus increase the number of under-represented students in CS courses and in the major. Two particular strengths of the proposed approach are that it is relatively low cost, and does not require a major reorganization of existing CS. This means that, if proven successful, it is much more likely to be adopted by other institutions than high-cost, highly-disruptive approaches. It is vital, of course, both to evaluate and disseminate the results of the program; thus, the proposal also includes extensive assessment and dissemination components.

Intellectual Merit: The proposed program is based on the Emerging Scholars Program and Peer-Led Team Learning; approaches that have proven successful in university-level math and science classes across the country. However, while those programs have focused on under-represented groups, the goals were oriented towards success and retention, rather than recruiting. While those goals are of course also important in Computer Science, a more fundamental problem is getting more women and minorities in our courses in the first place. By attracting them to introductory CS courses, and giving a positive experience and a solid peer group with whom to progress through the major, the proposed approach addresses both attraction and retention. However, the approach is as yet unproven; it is important to try it and to evaluate it at a number of institutions with different characteristics to determine how well it will work in practice, and what factors are most likely to predict success or failure of the approach.