The police arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University, and President Obama’s comments on the incident, has re-ignited a national debate about race, bias, and stereotyping in the US. Regardless of the specifics of the Gates incident, African-American and Latinos in the US routinely experience bias and stereotyping, and social science data on the topic is sobering. If you want to learn about how that bias plays out early in terms of access to science and engineering education, read Stuck
in the Shallow End, where Dr. Jane Margolis and her colleagues discuss the ongoing segregation of opportunity at the K-12 level. To learn more about how bias and stereotyping plays out in the workplace, read The Level Playing Field Institute Corporate Leavers Survey. To test your own stereotypical assumptions, visit Project Implicit, a research project at Harvard University.
Fortunately, amidst the sobering news and data, there are programs working to increase the proportion of underrepresented minority students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Empowering Leadership Alliance (EL Alliance), funded by the National Science Foundation, aims “to increase the number of students from groups with long-standing
underrepresentation that receive undergraduate and graduate degrees in the computing disciplines.” Dr. Richard
Tapia, whom I blogged
about last week, University Professor at Rice University,
is the Principal Investigator of the alliance. This week, I interviewed Dr. Tapia as well as Ann
Redelfs and Cynthia Lanius, who are co-leaders and co-founders of the alliance.
The EL-Alliance creates a national network of committed academics, industry, and government representatives to increase diversity in computing. In order to bring more women and underrepresented minorities in technology, multiple educational and industry organizations need to commit to increasing their outreach, mentoring, and retention efforts.
“The most important outcome of creating this network for minority students is so they can realize they are not alone, and see that they can make it”, said Dr. Tapia. “A lot of minority students come from disadvantaged high schools and didn’t get the same opportunities and preparation to be competitive
at a major research university. We believe that the environment needs to be changed in order for them to be successful. I know from my own experience that it is possible for them to succeed given the right support.”
Lanius and Redelfs say that the EL-Alliance enhances the retention and advancement of minority students in computing disciplines through three strategies: at the local level, the alliance builds critical mass within a campus among STEM departments, whereby students can connect to each other, to
mentors, faculty, and to opportunities. At the regional level, specific regions can create critical mass; for example, the EL Alliance reached out to all the major research institutions in the Boston Area, and invited them to build a community through
the alliance, over 300 people are now engaged
from that region. The third approach is national – any minority student can join the alliance, get support, mentoring, and get connected to opportunities.
“A lot of times computer
science faculty have some opportunities for research – they want to reach out to minority students, but don’t know where to find them. The Alliance brokers these kinds of opportunities and makes sure that minority students have access to those opportunities”, says
The biggest challenge of the EL Alliance? Finding the isolated minority students who need them the most. “We have outreached to department chairs to increase our reach to those students,” notes Cynthia Lanius. Often, students at the freshmen level are also not aware of the need to join such an effort: “They are freshmen, they are on top of the world, and they haven’t experienced the barriers yet. By the time you get to junior year they have experienced the challenge. The EL Alliance makes sure we don’t lose them from computing disciplines”, says Dr. Tapia.
To see what is possible, take a look at the biographies of Latino and Native American scientists collected by SACNAS, an organization dedicated to advancing Hispanic and Native American scientists. Also look at this compilation of biographies of African-American