Closing the inclusion gap in computer science
Philanthropic giving to the Department of Computer Science helps create a culture of support for aspiring computer scientists.
Nure Tasnina has always been part of a rarified group.
As an undergraduate, she was a woman in a computer science program that was 80 percent male. Then, as a mentor at the Lilabati Math Camp in Bangladesh, she worked with elementary-aged girls who displayed extraordinary talent in mathematics.
“But as they progressed to middle and high school, social stigma and gender bias caused their numbers to dwindle significantly,” Tasnina said. “Having witnessed these challenges firsthand, I am acutely aware of the importance of celebrating all underrepresented groups in STEM.”
Champions of diversity
In the United States alone, the National Center for Education Statistics showed that in 2020, self-identified males constituted 77 percent of computer science graduates, and 36 percent of degree recipients self-identified as white — the largest single ethnic demographic in the discipline.
Now as a Department of Computer Science doctoral student in bioinformatics research, Tasnina has joined a Virginia Tech program working to make big changes. This year, she was one of 32 graduate and undergraduate students who attended one of two national diversity in computing conferences on a full scholarship funded by philanthropic gifts to the department. Twenty-six of those students also enrolled in the department’s Diversity Issues in Computer Science course.
“The idea is to provide opportunities for students to network with people who look, speak, and think like them, as well as others who don't. They get to experience the value of diversity, and how our communities would benefit from such different groups of people working together,” said Mohammed Seyam, experiential learning coordinator and collegiate assistant professor. “And then they come back and start spreading the word as champions for diversity in computer science.”
Tasnina attended the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, held this year in Dallas, Texas.
“The conference provides a platform to highlight the achievements of minority and underrepresented groups and inspires them to break the barriers of societal expectations,” Tasnina said. “By attending this remarkable event, I hope to contribute to this movement and be part of the collective effort to create a more inclusive and diverse STEM community.”
Alexandra Thompson, a doctoral student in human-computer interaction who investigates the socioeconomic disparity gap in computer science education, attended the Grace Hopper Celebration. This conference for women and non-binary people in computing fields was held in September in Orlando, Florida.
This year, news headlines described men overrunning the Grace Hopper conference to get access to its career fair, highlighting some of the problems women face in the industry. Despite that, Thompson said it remained a good experience for her.
“I did make some really great external connections at Grace Hopper and found out about opportunities for internships and future faculty positions,” she said. “But the connections I've made with the women from Virginia Tech are ones I'm going to remember forever. It was really great to share our stories, talk about connections we made at the conference, discuss the state of support of our own university, and just enjoy hot pot with each other.
“The support we gave to each other whenever we talked about interviews, specific internship opportunities, or successes we've recently had in our school life was really heartwarming and uplifting,” Thompson said.
Learning a new way
For about a decade, the department has funded full scholarships for students to attend these conferences. Since 2017, Seyam has been working and traveling with the scholarship recipients to help them better prepare for and benefit from their conference experiences. In 2021, he developed a one-credit course to give them a structured place to reflect on their experiences.
Closing the diversity gap in computer science is important, but without inclusion it has limited benefits, according to Seyam.
“After getting all these different groups of students in the room, how can we make sure that they can actually work together and feel safe talking about their struggles and their fears?” he said.
The class has helped answer that question.
“The course provides a unique opportunity to engage in discussions with my fellow students and professors and share our views and concerns that might be perceived as uncomfortable topics of conversation in other venues,” Tasnina said. “This gives us a voice.”
And demand for the program continues to grow. More than 170 students applied to be part of it this past spring, Seyam said.
It’s been so popular that it has inspired a research initiative.
“Last year, we published a paper describing the class and how it serves the goal of the conferences,” he said. “This year, we are working more on a research project by trying to see how this class actually benefits students who are attending these two conferences."
Working for the greater good
The Department of Computer Science, the College of Engineering, and the overall university work in many ways to support through diversity, inclusion, and access in higher education.
On the college level, the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity remains on the forefront of diversity and inclusion initiatives.
In October, the university launched a $500 million fundraising effort called the Virginia Tech Advantage to support students with financial need. This universitywide, multiyear commitment will offer a broad educational experience to undergraduate students from Virginia, including first-generation and other underrepresented and underserved students.