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AAAS Report Finds NSF Alliance Initiative Boosts Computing Degrees; Minority Participation

A National Science Foundation (NSF) program designed to increase the number of students receiving post-secondary computer science degrees, with special emphasis on underrepresented minorities, has found dramatic success, says a AAAS report.

“Telling the Stories of the BPC Alliances: How One NSF Program Is Changing the Face of Computing” was released online this week. The report states that while the number of students pursuing computer science degrees has declined nationally, institutions participating in the NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program “are defying the national trends … with cohorts of underserved students being reached, gaining confidence and skills, and making progress towards degrees and careers in computing.”

The BPC program funds eleven alliances involving a diverse set of institutions—large research universities, historically black colleges, states, middle and high schools, and various non-profit organizations.. Together, they leverage their faculty and financial resources to encourage more students to pursue computer science degrees, and, ultimately, careers.

Through a 2006 NSF grant, AAAS serves as a technical assistance provider charged with documenting the progress of the BPC program, as well as demonstrating the impacts the program has for underrepresented minorities—women, scientists with disabilities, and several racial minorities.

Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity and lead author of the report, said that the study’s conclusions demonstrate that “considerable strides” in education may be made with well-placed interventions.

“The report shows that, taken as a whole, the BPC Alliances are an effective model not only for other higher education computing programs, but also across the board for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” said Chubin.

The Alliances fosters participation among like-minded institutions in computer science in four main ways: reforming statewide systems, focusing on undergraduate experiences, connecting unlike institutions, and creating national networks.

One program, the Advancing Robotics Technology for Societal Impact, connects 13 historically black colleges and universities with 10 large research institutions, offering students at smaller schools valuable research experience potentially unavailable on their home campus. In addition, the program engages K-12 students in the community with robotics using art, robotics road shows, and educational films.

Daryl Chubin

In the Computing Alliance for Hispanic-Serving Institutions, 10 colleges and universities developed an introductory computer science course—offered on all of the campuses within the alliance—which prepares freshman for the rigors of a computer science major, increasing the chance they will complete the degree. The alliance also promotes mentoring for success in graduate school and careers in the professoriate.

First distributed in 2005, the grants are three-year funding sources with the potential for an additional two-year extension. Alliances are expected to use the NSF grant to develop the program, with the hope of becoming self-sustaining after the funding ends.

“The BPC Alliances provide a venue for developing, testing, and deploying new interventions and they form a networking community for student and faculty who are often minorities in their home departments,” said Jan Cuny, NSF program director for BPC. “Participants in the alliances help form a national voice for advocacy and help to raise awareness and engagement of other academic, professional, and community organizations.”

The report calls for broader participation in all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. But it highlights computer science, noting that it “underlies discoveries in all other STEM disciplines, with exciting applications to many other fields such as journalism, arts, humanities, gaming, and social science.”

The report adds that while STEM jobs are projected to grow at twice the rate of the economy as a whole to 2018, the largest growth is expected for computer and mathematical occupations.

To meet the growing need for specialized talent, it’s critical that colleges and universities attract potential computer science majors from all groups, the report says, especially those that have historically participated at very low rates.

“Failing to [better recruit] will concede talent to other fields, eliminate talent from the Computing/Information Technology (IT) workforce, and rob us of all of the diverse perspectives and novelty that will shape the future of technology,” the report says.

Chubin said that the NSF program is not about “quick fixes” to a single institution, but rather “systematic changes” that form a pathway.

“It takes a great deal of time for campus culture to catch up with the demographics of those attending their institutions,” said Chubin. “These alliances are planting seeds that will benefit both the student’s desire for STEM education and higher education’s need for talented, motivated students.”


Read “Telling the Stories of the BPC Alliances: How One NSF Program Is Changing the Face of Computing.”

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.

Learn more about the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation in Computing program.


Benjamin Somers