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Cornell University Initiative Seeks To Broaden Diversity in Computing

Cornell University Initiative Seeks To Broaden Diversity in Computing

Ithaca, N.Y.

In an initiative supported by a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant, Cornell University is launching a pilot project to develop innovative approaches to bring more underrepresented minorities and women into the computing field. The Worlds for Information Technology and Science project, or WITS, is led by Dr. David Gries, Cornell’s associate dean for undergraduate engineering programs, and Margaret Corbit, the outreach manager for the Cornell Theory Center. 

The project, which makes use of service learning to attract minorities and women to computing fields, is creating a four-credit undergraduate course, “Computing in Context,” which will be sponsored by the university’s computing and information science department. In addition to the new course, the project will develop the CYCentr/CYFair, a service outreach program in which “Computing in Context” students mentor middle school students. According to Cornell officials, service-learning projects have been shown to have high appeal for minorities and women.

“Computing has broadened to encompass almost all fields,” Gries says. “This grant will help us to not only attract Cornell students into computing but will also serve to build awareness of and excitement for computing in secondary schools. At the same time, we ourselves will be learning about what does and does not work in teaching computing at these levels.”

The developers of WITS plan to ensure the adaptability and scalability of the program model by deploying and testing it at three different institutions: Pennsylvania State University, the San Diego Supercomputing Center and Virginia Commonwealth University. The schools have committed themselves to conducting adapted projects on their campuses and in local communities.

“Each institution of higher education is unique; programs developed at or for one institution will not always transfer seamlessly to other sites,” says Corbit. “With this in mind, we have recruited representatives from a range of service-learning communities to participate in content development to ensure that our model will be valuable and useful in a variety of settings.”

Cornell officials say they expect the research generated from the WITS project to yield insights that will be helpful for non-underrepresented minorities. “Although WITS will focus on underrepresented groups, this project holds the promise of improving research, education, and outreach for all students in computing,” says Dr. Jennifer Wofford, the assistant dean for the Cornell CIS department.

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