This article is published in the November 2009 issue.

Empowering Leadership – An Expanding NSF Alliance Impacting Minority Scholars Nationwide

The Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program within the CISE Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF), headed up by Program Director Jan Cuny, demonstrates NSF’s serious commitment to increasing the participation of those who have long been underrepresented in computing. Numerous BPC Alliances and Demonstration Projects provide a wide range of services for many underrepresented groups. One such alliance, the Empowering Leadership: Computing Scholars of Tomorrow Alliance (EL Alliance, or ELA), has a goal of increasing participation of underrepresented minority students (URMs) who attend research one universities.

Developing the talent of minority students is critical to the country’s future, and yet minority students at majority institutions are faced with multiple challenges to their success. They can be one of very few—or the only—minority in their classes, they may have come from a high school that lacked the resources to prepare them as well as their university colleagues, or they may lose confidence when faced with the high level of academic competition that they wouldn’t have experienced in high school. Most significantly, their network of formal and informal resources, support, and encouragement, that is critical to all students, is significantly smaller and less robust. Talented, motivated minority students who do enter university intending to major in STEM fields often migrate away from computing to other disciplines or leave college altogether, due to a lack of support—what I like to call the loss of the precious few. The EL Alliance seeks to build a support network that can encourage and sustain students to retain them in their computing majors.

A Network of Support through Broadening Participation

Established in 2007, the EL Alliance offers a range of professional development, mentoring programs, conference participation, research opportunities, and support for URMs at research universities. Led by Rice University, the University of Illinois, Boston University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of California, Berkeley, the EL Alliance has created a supportive network composed of people from leading universities, professional societies, laboratories, research centers, and corporations, all committed to the success of minority scholars.

The number of professionals in the ELA community has grown tremendously in its first two years from the original 40 partners and leaders to 145, more than tripling the number of professionals engaged with the Alliance. These partners serve as mentors, guide research programs for students, meet with students at conferences, and participate in discussions that help shape the ELA’s programs.

The EL Alliance student network more than doubled from 122 students at 30 universities at the end of our first year to 250 students at 74 universities in year two, and in the first quarter of 2009, doubled again to approximately 500 students from 175 universities. Females make up 44 percent of the ELA student network, much higher than the participation of females in computing in general. The EL Alliance Student Advisory Board, which includes undergraduate and graduate students from diverse disciplines, backgrounds, and institutions, provides input on their own experiences and advises the ELA leadership on programs of value to students.

Strategies to Support Students Nationwide

Based on input from students, faculty, administrators, and our independent evaluation team, the ELA has established three broad strategies for creating programs:

Building Infrastructure

Based on the original plans for the ELA, a national network of colleagues who share the common experience of being a minority student or faculty member at a research institution and others deeply committed to their success has been created. This network also includes our sister BPC programs, including the Alliance for the Advancement of African-American Researchers in Computing, Students and Technology in Academia, Research; Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions; Students and Technology in Academia, Research, and Service; AccessComputing; Commonwealth Alliance for Information Technology Education; National Center for Women in Technology; Computing Research Association Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research; and the Coalition to Diversify Computing. Leveraging the unique resources among these programs allows all of us to focus on our strengths while offering more opportunities to a greater number of students.

Supporting Students

The needs of the students are at the core of the ELA’s initiatives, which include professional development experiences, conference participation and networking, mentoring programs, and research opportunities. As students become members, they provide information to the ELA about themselves. The students’ input on their perceived needs and interests—invaluable in guiding the ELA’s programs—are as follows:

  • Attend conferences in your discipline (88%)
  • Meet leaders in your field from across the country (81%)
  • Learn about resources available to assist with your research and career interests career interests (74%)
  • Participate in research programs (74%)
  • Get to know other minority students in your field (69%)
  • Intern at leading universities and laboratories (68%)
  • Make presentations to your colleagues at conferences (46%)
  • Provide insights to senior faculty and university administrators about how to improve their campus environments and programs (42%)

Adding to the National Knowledge Base

The ELA is studying and disseminating findings concerning the challenges and barriers for URMs at research institutions. Independent evaluation of the strategies employed in our programs help to determine how we are meeting our goals and to identify factors and practices of success. The dissemination of results and best practices will help inform the broader computing community and benefit minority students at research institutions.

EL Alliance’s Models of Engagement

The ELA has developed and uses three models through which we work and engage others. The models are:

National Model By building a national network of individuals across the country, we are able to engage individual students, faculty members, administrators, and computing professionals in virtual and in-person interactions, which is particularly important to isolated minority students. The model includes broad-reaching, yet individual, opportunities for engagement, national conferences, mentoring without borders, and partnerships with other national programs. Students participating in regional or local ELA programs also join the national network.

Conference participation, cited by our students as their highest priority of need, has played a significant role in building the ELA community and supporting students. National conferences such as SC’XY, the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing have provided us the opportunity to bring together large numbers of ELA members for meetings, on-site mentoring, and professional development. The students meet with leaders in their fields who interact with them during and after the conferences.

Regional Model The New England area is the first regional ELA program (NE ELA). Representatives from several institutions interested in minority student achievement have come together to offer in-person experiences and collaborations that can have a strong impact across the area. NE ELA convenes workshops with local leaders focused on offering professional development programs for university students, an online resource for minority scholars in the area, and outreach to K-12 teachers. As a result of these workshops, in April 2009 ELA sponsored the first New England Undergraduate Computer Science workshop, working with the New England Computer Science Chairs (NECSC) consortium.

Local Model Local ELA networks of support are created where a sufficient critical mass of underrepresented students exists. An excellent example is the EL Alliance student group at the University of Texas at Austin (UTCS ELA), which has seen a great deal of growth since its inception and is a model for student groups on other campuses. There are 200 URMs in the Department of Computer Science, and UTCS ELA has 65 members. The group holds regular meetings, hosts guest speakers, shares information through a Facebook group, hosts faculty lunches, tutors younger students, and holds events for middle and high school students. They have developed a guide to help other campuses establish similar groups, which is being shared through the ELA and beyond.

Invitation to Participate

The EL Alliance invites anyone interested in the success of minority scholars to participate. Students are encouraged to join and receive information about the range of opportunities described above. Faculty and administrators are encouraged to join our dynamic and growing network, to participate as a source of information about your programs, and to learn more about supporting the minority students on your campus. Join at:


Richard A. Tapia is University Professor and Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering at Rice University, Director of Rice’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Education, and the Director of the Empowering Leadership Alliance.

Empowering Leadership – An Expanding NSF Alliance Impacting Minority Scholars Nationwide