This article is published in the January 2005 issue.

Help Support the Distributed Mentor Project

Expanding the Pipeline

As we are all aware, the percentage of women in computer science and computing engineering is declining. Often faculty shrug off this disparity as lack of aptitude by women students. Computer science, however, is the only scientific discipline that is not increasing the percentage of women students. Mathematics, for example, has almost reached parity at the undergraduate level. With overall declining enrollments, we need to reach out to make computing and computing research an attractive discipline to be pursued by the brightest students. This is everyone’s responsibility.

The CRA-W Distributed Mentor Project (DMP) tries to encourage women who are strong students studying computer science to go on to graduate school. The DMP matches promising undergraduate women with a faculty mentor for a summer research experience at the faculty member’s home institution. Students experience what it is like to participate in a research project and get a close-up view of what graduate school is really like. Past assessment, done by the University of Wisconsin Lead (Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation and Dissemination) Center, found that students that participate in the DMP are twenty (!) times as likely to attend graduate school than a control group with comparable grades. Instead of doubting whether they could succeed in graduate school, DMP students tend to feel positive about their ability to succeed and thus are more inclined to pursue a graduate education.

The program has been a success, but has only been able to reach a relatively small number of students. Initially there was concern that the DMP program could not be scaled in size because there would not be enough student or mentor applications. Although this was true during the initial years of the program, the DMP is now better known and is attracting significant numbers of undergraduate and faculty mentor applications. This year, for example, there were almost 250 student applications, more than eighty faculty mentor applications, and an all-time high of forty-four students participating in the program. This represents a dramatic increase over past years. The problem now is money.

The National Science Foundation has been the primary source of funds for this program, but several organizations and industries have contributed as well. The National Science Foundation, however, tends to fund new initiatives, not ongoing projects. Now that we have demonstrated that this is a successful approach for encouraging women to pursue a graduate degree, we need to find alternative avenues to continue funding of this program.

Therefore, we are turning to the community to ask for support to help keep the DMP going. Faculty members who apply to be mentors can now offer to fund one or two students using their own grant or institutional funds. The DMP covers the expenses for the student to travel to the mentor’s home institution, but the faculty member pays the student’s stipend. The DMP selection committee, currently chaired by Nancy Amato and Jessica Hodgins, selects the most promising students and pairs them with faculty with strong research credentials in the student’s area of interest. The students tend to be juniors with high grade point averages. Many come from undergraduate institutions that do not have research programs, so this program is their only opportunity to participate in a research project before deciding if they should consider graduate school. Although initially women faculty members tended to serve as mentors, now any faculty member who is interested in providing mentoring and guidance is encouraged to apply. Companies are also encouraged to make tax-deductible contributions to the CRA-W to fund the DMP or other CRA-W programs. The CRA-W web site,, describes some of the funding options available to companies.

Applications and additional information about the DMP are available at This site also includes descriptions of past projects and comments by past DMP students about their experiences.

Lori A. Clarke is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a member of both the CRA Board of Directors and CRA-W.

Help Support the Distributed Mentor Project