Jun 28 2019

Boosting Grad Diversity Key to Maintaining U.S. Upper Hand in Computer Science

By deploying technology, equalizing access to it and encouraging collaboration, U.S. higher education institutions can draw more students to STEM.

Amid persistent global demand for professionals in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the U.S. is in an enviable spot: It’s the leader in producing highly skilled computer science graduates.

But where the nation falls short is in diversity — the number of women, as well as black and Hispanic students, graduating from undergraduate computer science programs.

That reflects the lack of diversity overall in the rapidly growing STEM workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 13 percent growth in computer and information research scientist jobs through 2026. And that’s just in the United States.

Women make up a greater share of workers in areas of life and physical sciences, but their representation among computing professionals has declined, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. The share of women in computer occupations has dropped, from 32 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2018, according to Pew.

Black and Hispanic workers account for 11 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of the overall workforce, but represent nine percent and seven percent of science, technology, engineering and math jobs, according to Pew.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read about why liberal arts students should also embrace STEM.

The challenge to increase diversity in STEM also represents an opportunity for the U.S. to emerge as a leader and maintain its edge in computer science skills. 

Undergraduate seniors in U.S. computer science programs “substantially outperform” their peers in China, India and Russia, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Collectively, the U.S., China, India and Russia produce about half of the world’s STEM graduates, the researchers note.

The edge in skill level remained even when researchers compared U.S. students in average computer science programs to students in average computer science programs in the other four nations. Students in average U.S. computer science programs also performed on par with students in elite programs in the other nations, researchers found.

MORE FROM EDTECH: HPC provides universities with a teaching tool and a boon to research funds.

U.S. Expands the Candidate Pool to Maintain Edge in STEM

Such information about graduates’ skill levels cannot only inform employers seeking qualified employees but also “policymakers and administrators seeking to improve the quality and diversity of CS programs in an international context,” the study states.

But the researchers also found “consistent but moderate differences” in the skills between male and female students in the four countries. That gender gap, they note, indicates “more effort is needed to attract higher-achieving female students into CS and ensure that they have equal opportunities to receive a quality education.”

Recent efforts to reverse that trend and boost diversity in computer science programs and in STEM careers include a recent partnership between Google and Howard University in Washington, D.C. Students spend an academic year immersed at the tech giant’s Silicon Valley headquarters. They also receive a stipend to cover housing and other expenses, as well as “full access to Google resources,” the university announced last year.

The demand for computer science and IT jobs is precisely why Augusta University in Georgia launched its first cybersecurity engineering degree. The university is also working with the military on educational options for military professionals — another example of way to increase access and diversity.

Similar partnerships with tech companies are one way to draw students to computer science programs. Other opportunities include embracing esports, which can give students access to scholarships and foster interest in STEM.

Higher education leaders should also consider increasing access to technology that might help minimize financial barriers for students. This could include allowing students to borrow laptops and other devices and establishing well-equipped, 24-hour computer labs. By fostering collaboration, educators can also help students develop in-demand soft skills such as teamwork and problem-solving.

There also are practical reasons to increase diversity.

As Rebecca Wright, director for the Vagelos Computational Science Center at Barnard College, tells EdTech in a previous interview, “diverse teams produce better results.”

“Diverse teams are more likely to find differences of opinions or expectations on what a system should do and how it should work,” Wright says. “This gives teams a higher chance of identifying issues early on, instead of waiting until their product is out in the world to discover there are whole populations that were not even considered during the planning stages.”

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