This article is published in the May 2008 issue.

African-American Researchers in Computing Sciences: A Model for Broadening Participation


African-Americans in Computing Sciences

According to the most recent Computing Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey, African-Americans represent 1.3 percent of all computing sciences faculty. Nationally, across all disciplines, African-Americans represent 5.2 percent of all academic faculty.

The African-American Researchers in Computing Sciences (AARCS) program was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program in 2006. It aims to narrow the gap between computing science faculty and the national average by eliminating disbeliefs, concerns and misunderstandings about graduate school, research, and computing sciences faculty among African-American undergraduate computing sciences majors.

AARCS Program

The African-American Researchers in Computing Sciences program consists of three components: 1) targeted presentations, 2) future faculty mentoring, and 3) an annual AARCS mini-conference.

Targeted Presentations

The targeted presentations component consists of a presentation that addresses seven barriers, identified by social science research, for minority participation in STEM Ph.D. programs. In this component, at least one faculty member and one graduate student will travel to a HBCU and give a presentation discussing graduate school, computing sciences research, and academic faculty employment. The faculty member executes the targeted presentation and the graduate student assists in answering questions after the presentation. The targeted presentations address all the misunderstandings that undergraduates may have about computing sciences graduate school programs, academic faculty, and research. The content of the targeted presentation can be summarized in terms of seven barriers:

  1. Stereotypes

The inaccurate stereotypes that students typically have of scientists (e.g., as white males) are immediately broken down when the faculty and the graduate students walk into the room. These stereotypes do not fit the presenting faculty or the graduate students. In the presentation, the stereotypes are explicitly pointed out and immediately discarded.

  1. Role Models

The presentation explains the importance of role models. At the same time, the presentation reveals the low numbers of African-Americans in the computing sciences. This approach is taken to help the students realize the slim chances of finding African-American role models within the computing sciences through random encounters alone. However, through AARCS, the students will enter a network of African-Americans in computing sciences, making them more likely to find useful mentors.

  1. “Helping” Professions

Within the presentation, several links are made to illustrate how computing sciences can be used to “give back” and help others. Specifically, the presentation suggests research areas—like artificial intelligence, advanced learning technologies, human-centered computing, and others—as vehicles that can be used to give back and demonstrate how computing can be used to help others.

  1. Financial Concerns

The presentation covers graduate school funding opportunities. An explanation of graduate teaching assistantships, research assistantships and fellowships is provided. Specifically, fellowship opportunities for African-Americans are discussed.

  1. Inadequate Advisement

Research has shown that African-Americans and other minorities often suffer from inadequate advisement about graduate school, research and the professoriate. The targeted presentation addresses this issue head-on by suggesting resources that provide advisement and options. The targeted presentation and the AARCS program are vehicles of proper advisement; therefore, the presentation itself addresses this issue.

  1. Lack of Knowledge Regarding the Advantages of Having a Ph.D.

Research has shown that African-Americans and other minorities may not see the advantages of having a Ph.D.; therefore, these groups do not tend to pursue the degree. The targeted presentation offers several advantages of obtaining a Ph.D. in computing sciences—tenure, the ability to work on problems you want to address, and salary, for example.

  1. Employment Opportunities

Similar to the lack of knowledge regarding the advantages of having a Ph.D., research shows that often minority groups do not understand the employment opportunities available to Ph.D. recipients. Employment opportunities are addressed by providing facts about computing sciences. The presentation addresses outsourcing concerns, corporate employment options, government research opportunities (NSF, DARPA, etc.), faculty employment options and research scientist options.

The targeted presentations provide motivation and information for undergraduates to pursue graduate school opportunities. The future faculty mentoring component works with graduate students.

Future Faculty Mentoring

Given the disparity between the number of African-Americans receiving the Ph.D. in computing sciences and the number who pursue faculty positions, it became clear that African-Americans do not receive adequate advice upon the completion of their Ph.D. Several students have expressed this concern in private discussions. As a result, the Future Faculty Mentoring (FFM) component was created as part of the AARCS model. Initially, a group of African-Americans from across the country in computing sciences Ph.D. programs in research extensive-institutions were pulled together as participants in the FFM component. The goal of the FFM component was to advise these students on the academic search process. Each of them had expressed an interest in obtaining a faculty position, but no one had explained to them, for example, how to search for positions, how the interview process works, or how to negotiate salary. In fact, some of the students were told that they will make “good teachers.” In other words, these students were told that they were not worthy of faculty positions at research-extensive schools.

The FFM group regularly exchanges email and participates in scheduled conference calls. Some of the FFM activities include reviewing academic job announcements and reviewing job offers collected from other African-Americans in computing sciences. The students share information about their interviews and offers. In fact, the FFM component has a database of job offers that can be used for future FFM groups. Every member of the FFM group who accepts a tenure-track appointment will be a success.

African-American Researchers in Computing Sciences (AARCS) Mini-Conference

The AARCS mini-conference is a two-day symposium that brings together students from the targeted presentation sites and African-American researchers from computing sciences all over the nation. Undergraduate students apply for travel scholarships to attend the AARCS mini-conference. The mini-conference includes the following activities:

  1. Prominent African-American researchers from computing sciences participate as speakers.
  2. Each student participant is assigned a faculty and a graduate-student mentor based on their research interest. These groups meet at AARCS to establish mentoring relationships and to discuss research, graduate school, and other topics.
  3. The FFM group also attends the AARCS mini-conference. Sessions targeted to the FFM group are conducted by senior African-American faculty and former FFM group members.
  4. Research writing and presentation sessions are conducted.
  5. A targeted presentation is given.
  6. Grant-writing workshops are conducted.

Conclusion

The AARCS program is entering its third year. In the first two years of the program more than 200 students have seen the targeted presentation. These students have self-reported behavior change with respect to their career options after viewing the targeted presentation. After the first two years, the AARCS Conference attendance has exceeded more than 130 registrants with a growing demand for more travel scholarships. Additionally, the AARCS Conference has gained support from corporate sponsors such as Microsoft and IBM. The Future Faculty Mentoring (FFM) component has mentored more than 22 students into faculty, research scientist, postdoc and corporate positions. More than 90 percent of the FFM program participants reported that the “program provided them with concrete information with regards to pursuing faculty positions.”

While the AARCS program is designed to increase the number of African-Americans seeking faculty and research appointments in the computing sciences, the program is not exclusive to African-Americans. In fact, only 78 percent of the FFM participants are African-Americans. The program aims to broaden participation in computing amongst all under-represented groups. For more information on the AARCS Program, please contact Dr. Juan E. Gilbert at gilbert@auburn.edu.

Juan Gilbert is the TSYS Distinguished Associate Professor in the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department and a Center for Governmental Services Fellow at Auburn University where he directs the Human Centered Computing Lab.
Jerlando Jackson is an Associate Professor of Higher and Postsecondary Education in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.