Summer Workshop Pushes Minority Students to Pursue Computer Science Degrees

13 students from universities across the country came to Cornell for a week-long computer science workshop.

Undergraduate tech students from universities around the country convened at Cornell this past week for a week-long computer science workshop, encouraging students to consider graduate degrees in the field.

The workshop, Software Defined Network Interface, aims to increase the number of underrepresented minority Ph.D. students in computer science. The participants come from various universities including North Carolina State University and the University of Puerto Rico.

Prof. Hakim Weatherspoon, computer science, created the workshop because he said the percentage of underrepresented minorities in computer science was “very low.”

In fact, while between 1,500 and 1,600 students earn a Ph.D. in computer science each year, fewer than 3 percent of those students are underrepresented minorities, according to Weatherspoon.

“Each year there’s about 20, 25 that are African-American,” he said. “Around 20, 25 that are Hispanic, and 2 to 5 that are Native American. So about 50 total, which is less than 3 percent.”

“If we have 25 here,” Weatherspoon added about the program, “and then they all went on and pursued a Ph.D. and obtained one, we would have double the number of Ph.D.s that are from underrepresented minorities.”

The program — funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation — was free for participating students.

In the mornings, the students attended lectures from Cornell professors and deans from departments including computer science and engineering. After the morning lecture, students ventured around campus, visiting the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source and attending a campus tour. In the afternoon, students worked coding their research project.

“The focus of this workshop, research-wise, is computer networks,” Weatherspoon said. “They actually do a project related to computer networks.”

Weatherspoon described how there is a “pipeline” responsible for the low numbers of Ph.D. candidates from underrepresented minorities.

“If you go backwards from top down, one reason is there’s very few underrepresented minority faculty in computer science,” he said. “I’m the only one here at Cornell and across the nation, there’s very, very few. A lot of schools have zero, and some have one, and very few have two.”

In addition to “very few” minority students in Ph.D. programs, some of these Ph.D. graduates choose to enter the computer science industry instead of becoming faculty.

Weatherspoon explained that even before college, there are “not as many” underrepresented minority students choosing to enter STEM.

“What we see is a high interest in computer science, but then to get into a computer science program, especially at a top university, and make it all the way through, and then go onto a Ph.D., you’re just losing people the entire way,” Weatherspoon said.

Ato Watson, a junior at Florida Memorial University, participated in the workshop, describing the experience as an “eye-opener.”

“The workshop has been an eye-opener, being a student from an underrepresented minority institution, coming here, an Ivy League institution, where research is being done at an extensive scale,” Watson said.

“I’m one of those students where opportunities like this doesn’t present themsel[ves],” he added. “I’m an international student from Jamaica. This experience is new for me, so I’m trying my very best to learn as much as possible.”

Jaelin Jordin, a junior at Hampton College, also participated in the program. He described how the participants in the program brought varying skills and backgrounds to the group.

From these different skillsets, Jordin emphasized the value of collaboration in the computer science field because “the key to computer science,” he said, “is that there is never one solution; there’s multiple ways to solve a problem.”

Like Jordin, Maya Mundell ’14, a member of the workshop, praised collaboration among students, particularly in that the workshop’s participants came from around the world, including Egypt, Ethiopia and India.

“We all really enjoyed each other’s company and we all learned a lot from one another,” Mundell said. “I think that type of experience is extremely invaluable because now we all have friends that span the world pretty much. And we all came together with the common interest of tech education and tech career opportunities.”