Expanding the Pipeline: Recruiting and Retaining Computing Students through Research Experiences for Undergraduates

As efforts to broaden computing have become more diverse, inclusive, and just, despite increasing enrollments in computer science, the percentages of historically excluded students have not changed much and many institutions are struggling to retain them. Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) are designed to introduce undergraduate students to research and present active training opportunities that may lead to students pursuing advanced academic degrees.  Students are exposed early in their academic careers to research as problem solving, and therefore can develop critical thinking skills independently of coding skills. REUs provide an alternative source of funding while engaging with faculty and mentors who can nurture their interests and provide encouragement to persist in their degree program, often prior to declaring a major. In addition to providing early research engagement opportunities for first year and second year students with insufficient experience to compete for cooperative and summer internships, applying to and participating in REUs provide experience navigating application requirements (including writing a personal statement and gaining strong letters of recommendation, which helps them get to know faculty and vice-versa), collaborating on a project, and building a set of skills that would make them an attractive graduate school applicants. REUs are especially beneficial for first-generation, community college, and non-traditional students who may have limited exposure and access to graduate school, the application process, and hands-on opportunities to explore the field more deeply.

We share some key insights that have been gleaned from evaluation reports of mentors and participants in the CRA Committee on Widening Participation in Computing Research (CRA-WP)’s Collaborative Research Experiences for Undergraduates (CREU) and Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates (DREU) programs and our own firsthand experiences working with and mentoring undergraduate students.

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More CREU Students Attend Graduate School Compared to Other REU Students

This infographic compares post-graduation plans of undergraduate students with different REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) experiences using CERP’s annual spring survey for graduating students. Specifically, CRA-W/CDC Alliance’s Collaborative Research Experiences for Undergraduates (CREU) participants, students who participated in other REUs, and students with no REU experience were compared in terms of whether they were attending graduate school (Master’s or Ph.D.) in the upcoming fall semester. The students included in this analysis are men from racial/ethnic groups who are underrepresented in computing and women because the CREU program is targeted specifically toward these students. Approximately the same number of women and men are in all three groups.

Twice as Many CREU/DREU Students Attend Graduate School, Compared to Other REU Students

During their final year in college, a sample of undergraduate computing majors completed CERP’s annual survey for graduating students. The sample contained past participants of the CRA-W/CDC Alliance’s Collaborative Research Experiences for Undergraduates (CREU) and Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates (DREU), students who had completed other REUs, and students who had never completed an REU. CREU/DREU participants were significantly more likely to report plans to attend a graduate program in computing in the upcoming fall, compared to students who had completed a different REU or no REU during college, p < .05. CREU/DREU students were also more likely to report that they were entering a Ph.D. program, compared to students with other REU experiences, or no REU experience, p < .05.

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CRA-W/CDC REU Programs Encourage Minorities to Pursue Ph.D.s in Computing

Part of CRA’s mission is to facilitate the development of strong, diverse talent in the field. CRA takes action to help increase and strengthen the computing workforce through programs such as the Collaborative Research Experiences for Undergraduates (CREU) and Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates (DREU) programs.

The 2014 Taulbee Survey reports 152 African-American students enrolled in computer science Ph.D. programs–only 1.3 percent of the total students enrolled. Despite these low numbers, there is not a shortage of success stories. Morehouse College, a historically black institution, produces 13 percent of the male African-American Ph.D. students. I recently caught up with Kinnis Gosha, assistant professor of computer science and director of the Culturally Relevant Computing Lab (CRCL) at Morehouse College. Gosha has a Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing and started the CRCL in 2011. The lab investigates research problems centered on creating innovative computing technologies to solve cultural problems and issues.