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Pursuing Critical Mass:
The Coalition to Diversify Computing

Sandra Johnson Baylor, Research Staff Member, IBM T.J. Watson Research Center Member, Board of Directors of the Computing Research Association Chair, Coalition to Diversify Computing

Sandra Johnson Baylor has been a model of persistence, achievement, and success in her career on the research staff at the prestigious IBM T.J. Watson Research Center. These characteristics have served her well in her position on the leadership committee of the Coalition to Diversity Computing (CDC). The CDC is dedicated to increasing the numbers of underrepresented minorities pursuing degrees and working in computing. As an African-American, Baylor is part of a population that comprises less than 15 percent of the total work force employed in science and engineering. Even fewer underrepresented minorities, which include African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians, are employed in computing.

"One of the problems in addressing minority representation is that there are so few of us, we don't even show up on the map!" Baylor said. Consequently, the work of the CDC falls on a few dedicated shoulders. "We focus our efforts on programs to increase the visibility of minorities in the field, and on providing networking opportunities for researchers, faculty, and students."

The CDC--a program of the Computing Research Association that was modeled after the successful CRA Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W)--receives funding from NPACI and NCSA through the Education, Outreach, and Training (EOT) thrust area. "Many of the CDC's outreach activities are based on programs and activities that started within CRA-W," said Baylor, who is also on the CRA board of directors. "For example, we're currently working on a brochure that profiles minorities in computer science, similar to a brochure on women in computer science that the CRA-W produced a few years ago."

The CDC brochure, which will be available in print and on the Web, will feature underrepresented minorities--considered to be Hispanics, African-Americans, and American Indians--at varying stages in their careers, from grade school through professionals. "Our audience includes students in junior high through college," said Baylor, "so with this brochure we're making every effort to present a range of experience, presenting role models for every stage of the game."

Creating role models is an important part of breaking the cycle of underrepresentation, according to a study recently completed by the Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation, and Dissemination (LEAD) Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, an NPACI partner. In LEAD's evaluation of the successful NPACI-supported Spend a Summer with a Scientist (SaS) program at Rice University, which also addresses underrepresentation, 89% of the student participants surveyed said it was "critical or very important" that the program be led by a role model who had maintained his or her ethnic identity. Additionally, most of the participants interviewed "discussed how important it was to have a role model showing them it was possible for minority students like them to achieve their academic and career goals."




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Minority Science Scholars

Programs such as the Minority Science Scholars, established by Mike Bailey and Rozeanne Steckler at SDSC, that provide one-on-one mentoring have proven successful in attacking the underrepresentation of minorities in science and engineering careers.

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A 1994 report prepared for Congress by the NSF examined the factors that lead to certain minorities being underrepresented in the sciences and engineering. According to the study, the trend begins during elementary and high school, where "the average achievement levels of Hispanics, blacks, and American Indians are lower than those of both whites and Asians."

According to the study, factors within the family and school--driven predominantly by socioeconomic level, which have historically tended to be lower among minorities--play a large part in forming student's early aspirations and expectations. Expectations, in turn, drive the pursuit of knowledge in science and engineering, and subsequent performance. When only 5 percent of Hispanic and African-American students say they think they will have a career in science or engineering, it is easy to see the correlation to the only 26 percent of black and 23 percent of Hispanic students who expect to complete a college education; a prerequisite for a career in these fields. Only 19 percent of American Indian students in the survey expected to complete a college education.

The CDC hopes to help change this scenario in part by working to impact access to computing resources and the quality of instruction in the classroom. According to Baylor, this will be done through programs for pre-service K-12 teachers at community colleges around the nation. Though the effort is still in its nascent stages, Baylor points out that some on the CDC have expertise in K-12 education and are looking at programs to increase levels of computing proficiency among K-12 teachers as well as to "change mindsets about minorities in the profession."


At the university level--where underrepresented minorities make up less than 20 percent of total undergraduate enrollment in all majors and less than 10 percent of the total number of graduate students in science or engineering--establishing role models is also important. Since underrepresented minorities have tended to cluster at schools that have traditionally served their community--such as at historically black colleges and universities and at institutions that are members of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU)--one CDC program has focused on bringing a traveling graduate school workshop to these institutions. With minorities from the field serving as presenters, the workshops pack a one-two punch--presenting both role models and information about how to pursue graduate studies. The LEAD Center's evaluation of SaS also indicated that a deterrent to many minority students is not knowing what to expect from graduate studies.

The CDC is also making more information about the computing field available to underrepresented minorities at the university level by sponsoring their attendance at major computing conferences, such as the annual CRA Snowbird Conference. At the last Snowbird, held in July 1998, CDC committee members Andrew Bernat and Ramon Vasquez Esponosa--both faculty at HACU institutions--convened a panel of minority attendees to discuss increasing representation in the field. Two students and four faculty who attended Snowbird with CDC assistance participated on the panel.

Other CDC programs include creating a database of minority doctorate holders in computer science and engineering and a CDC Web site. The database, which will eventually serve through the Web site, will be a resource for finding speakers and mentors, and will feed statistics on the numbers of minority doctorate holders around the country. "We hope to have the Web site available soon," Baylor said. "On the site, users should be able to find information on all of our programs and resources."

Only 5 percent of Hispanic and African-American students said they think they will have a career in science or engineering, and only 26 percent of black and 23 percent of Hispanic students expected to complete a college education; a prerequisite for a career in these fields. Only 19 percent of American Indian students in the survey expected to complete a college education.

1994 report of the National Science Foundation



Baylor realizes her own experience in computing has been atypical from that of many minorities and women. Her career has proceeded smoothly and she's never felt she was held back by her gender or ethnicity. This makes her even more determined to help other minorities succeed in computing. As an engineer, she sees achieving more equitable representation by minorities as a matter of leverage and optimization. "Technology is one of the major driving forces that enhances our society," she said. "We can optimize innovation in technology if we leverage the talent of the entire population and not just certain portions of the population. We are far from critical mass, but we're growing." ---AF