Computing

Center for Inclusive Computing grant supports diversity initiatives in computing majors

By: Paige Normand, CS Advisor & Outreach Coordinator

The Center for Inclusive Computing (CIC) awarded $200,000 of first-year funding of a proposed 3-year grant to support JMU in increasing the number of women and minorities in our computing majors. The grant was a joint effort between the Computer Science Department (CS) and the Department of Computer Information Systems & Business Analytics (CIS/BSAN) in the College of Business to support inclusive curriculum and support systems for our computing majors.

The grant will support four main initiatives: (1) reworking the introductory sequence in both programs to provide additional on-ramps into the majors for undeclared JMU students and science students; (2) formalize the Teaching Assistant (TA) training in the CS department and develop a TA program in the CIS department; (3) training faculty in both departments on best practices for inclusive teaching; and (4) developing a plan for a general education course in computing. In addition, the grant supports data collection and analysis for both departments to make informed decisions about areas to improve and identify successful strategies. Dr. Dee Weikle, Associate Professor in CS and Dr. Amy Connolley, Assistant Professor in CIS are the Principle Investigators of the grant.

JMU’s CS program has been recognized by computerscience.org for its number of female graduates; the department is eager to increase that percentage.

15% of our Computer Science students are women. While on the national scale, the JMU CS Department has one of the top percentages of women graduates in our major, it is a far cry from gender parity in our field. There are many societal and educational influences that perpetuate this disparity, and JMU is committed to creating an inclusive environment to encourage all students, regardless of background and experience with CS, to explore if computing is the right major or minor for them.

The CS department’s first effort, which went into effect in Spring 2022, was switching the programming language of CS 149 (Introduction to Programming) from Java to Python, a language that is used more widely in other fields and a helpful skill for any student to master

Dr. Dee Weikle, one of the co-authors of the grant and an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science, explains the value of this change: “We all benefit from knowing more about programming. Even if a student only takes CS 149, the knowledge helps them see how not to just use technology, but to have more of a foundation to control and create it. CS is like salt: a little of it makes everything a lot better.” With an introductory course that is applicable to more students, the CS Department hopes that diverse students from different majors will consider pursuing a double major or minor in CS.

CS TA Program

By creating an introductory course that is applicable to more majors, the CS department is excited to encourage more students to consider CS as a second major or minor.

The grant will also support the Undergraduate Teaching Assistants program. The Computer Science department has a robust TA program that offers in-class and evening support for students in our Introductory Programming Courses. The grant will help create a similar program for the College of Business to support students in their Python and Java courses. The COB TA program will launch this fall.

Dr. Weikle emphasized the importance of not only having peer-to-peer support, but ensuring that the TAs for both departments are trained on active listening, unconscious bias, interrupting bias, growth mindset feedback, and non-directive tutoring so that the departments can build an effective and inclusive support system that gives all students role models for their path forward in computing.

CS TA Program

The CS undergraduate TA program offers support and community for all students in the introductory programming courses.

Dr. Bob Kolvoord, Dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering, shared: “We’re very excited to partner with the Center for Inclusive Computing on this exciting project. This work will give us the chance to bolster our efforts in building an inclusive Computer Science department and in supporting more women who want to enter this major. Dr. Simmons, Dr. Weikle and the rest of the CS faculty are poised for even greater success and this grant is going to help us get there! This project will help both our current students and generations to come as we help make Computer Science a discipline for everyone.”

The grant will also support inclusive pedagogy through the adoption of Gradescope, to enable faculty to more efficiently share assignments across departments including rubrics, give more detailed and consistent feedback, perform anonymous grading, and spend less time grading so they are able to spend more time with students and rework assignments to be more inclusive. Dr. Carole Nash, CISE Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, presented at one of the summer faculty workshops. She shared: “The CIC grant is a catalyst for the creation of learning environments where students envision success precisely because they are welcomed and respected.”

Northeastern University’s Center for Inclusive Computing is funded by Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company created by Melinda Gates.

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