UTEP receives NSF grant to support diversity in computer science

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Ann Gates, professor and computer science chair at UT El Paso, has received almost $300,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to increase diversity in computational fields. 

The grant will go towards creating programs for minority students, specifically focusing on Hispanics students, that provide resources such as peer mentoring and professional development training. 

Increasing minority representation can help engineers solve more problems, according to Gates.

“When you bring in diversity, you end up coming up with more novel solutions,” Gates said. “Ways of thinking when you have more of a monolithic group may not come up with those kinds of solutions.”

The grant is one of 37 given by NSF’s Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science program, or INCLUDES. It will build up on the Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions, or CAHSI, which was founded to increase the number of Hispanic students pursuing computational and engineering fields.

While INCLUDES is based on increasing minority representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields, the UTEP initiative is specifically based on increasing the numbers of Hispanics in computational sciences.

“The purpose is to create collective impact by engaging community colleges, four year colleges, industry and nonprofits that share our common purpose of increasing the number of Hispanics that enter the computing field,” Gates said. 

In January, CAHSI will hold a conference in Palo Alto with Hewlett-Packard and other stakeholders in order to discuss a common agenda and determine measures of success. 

“We are honored to be in this distinguished group of pilots,” said Elsa Villa, co-director of UTEP’s Center for Research in Engineering And Technology Education. “We’re especially excited to identify the impact of CAHSI on these institutions, especially among the community colleges that feed into [them].”

The initiative will have three cohorts: one at University of California Merced, another at California State and a third as a collaboration between UTEP and New Mexico State University.

“Each of these cohorts will be including collaborations with local community colleges and we will be bringing in some of their best practices that include peer led team mentoring and the affinity research group model that develops students’ professional skills,” Gates said.

According to Gates, UTEP and CAHSI were a good selection for an INCLUDES grant due to previous success in creating consortiums for Hispanic-serving institutions.

“What we’ve been able to show with our social scientists at University of Colorado Boulder is that our shared practices have made a difference in the number of students retained and that move forward to graduate studies,” Gates said.

CAHSI also shares a common vision with INCLUDES, Villa said.

“If you look at NSF, the heart of the INCLUDES program is to increase participation of undeserved groups,” Villa said. “The NSF sees diversity as thought perspective and experience — [Hispanics’] experiences are different from non-minority Americans.”

By improving access to education in science and engineering fields, workers in those fields will better represent diversity in American populations, according to Gates.

“We’ve been struggling in terms of increasing the number of students in STEM fields and graduating — there will definitely be a shortage when you start looking for tech-savvy students,” Gates said. “We’re going to be able to reach populations and increase participation in STEM fields in a way that I think will actually change the numbers.”