Coming together to help grow the next generation of computing leaders

March 26, 2008

Javier Rosa is a on a mission. As an undergraduate at Rutgers University double-majoring in computer science and mathematics, he hopes to one day pursue an advanced degree in computer science with a focus on computational biology or bioinformatics and work to fight cancer.

Many college students studying at top-tier research universities have similarly ambitious goals, but two factors make Javier's academic journey particularly remarkable. For one thing, his passion for fighting cancer is personal--he was diagnosed with testicular cancer last year. Secondly, he is one of the few students from a minority background studying computer science at a tier-one research institution.

According to Richard A. Tapia, professor at Rice University, many minority students enrolled in undergraduate computer science programs at these institutions feel isolated and unsupported. As a result, he says, many leave the field to pursue a different major. "Students migrate to more welcoming degree programs," Tapia says, "where they feel they have support and a high probability of success."

Tapia and colleagues at nearly a dozen universities have teamed up with private industry and other groups to provide that support and prevent what he calls the "loss of the precious few" minority students majoring in computer science. He serves as director of the Empowering Leadership (EL) Alliance, an organization supported by funding from the National Science Foundation to provide these students with a community of support as they pursue their degrees.

"At the nation's top institutions, there are many choices inside and outside the university environment that offer vibrant opportunities and a welcoming environment," Tapia says. "We aim to provide both within the computing disciplines."

The EL Alliance's work could not come at a more crucial time. Despite the importance of information technology to the U.S. economy and society, the number of students from all backgrounds pursuing doctorates in computer science has actually declined in recent years. The statistics are even more dire for students from minority backgrounds. Such students are under-represented as undergraduates, and at the graduate level only 3 percent of doctorate students in computer science are African-American, Native American or Hispanic. Given that minority populations are the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population, this trend will continue unless efforts are made to reverse it.

One of the tools the EL Alliance uses is bringing these students together so they can meet and support each other. This past October, hundreds of students from around the country, many from the EL Alliance, came to Orlando for the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference where they interacted with national leaders in computing from the academic and business sectors. The Alliance has also established an online mentoring group that connects undergraduate and graduate students with national leaders in the computing fields who can offer their experience and advice as students make their way through their academic careers. The Alliance has also created a group on Facebook for its members to connect with each other.

These are just a few of the activities that Alliance members have in mind as they enter their second year. The partnership itself is comprised of universities, including Rice University; Boston University; University of California, Berkeley; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Texas, Austin; University of IllinoisArizona State University, Auburn University, Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, Duke University, Harvey Mudd College, Portland State University, Princeton University, Purdue University, University of Maryland, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Several national laboratories and research centers such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, National Center for Women in IT, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Renaissance Computing Institute, Sandia National Laboratories are also involved, along with several professional societies such the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Computing Research Association and corporations such as AMD Corporation, HP, IBM, Intel Corporation, Microsoft Corporation and Texas Instruments.

Rosa attended the Tapia Celebration and said it helped him visualize his own participation in academic conferences, something he plans to do in the near future. "I really enjoyed the exposure to other people who were promoting their ideas and experiences," Rosa says, "as well as the opportunity to meet with so many role models and fellow students."

National Science Foundation

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