New Grant Helps Illinois CS Develop Programs to Support Undergraduate Women in CS

8/24/2021 9:11:48 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

In May, Illinois CS was awarded a two-year grant worth approximately $930,000 from Northeastern University’s Center for Inclusive Computing to assist our efforts in Broadening Participation in Computing.
In May, Illinois CS was awarded a two-year grant worth approximately $930,000 from Northeastern University’s Center for Inclusive Computing to assist our efforts in Broadening Participation in Computing.

For years, Illinois CS has made Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) one of the core values of the department. However, Department Head Nancy M. Amato noted that financial support for this goal from external resources was rare to come by.

An Impactful Resource

Nancy Amato
Nancy Amato, Department Head

“The goal of the project is to increase by 10 percent the number of undergraduate women graduating with computing degrees. I hope we can do that; I hope we can do better than that, actually. But, more generally, if we can make this department more inclusive and welcoming to women, then we will make it better for everyone.”

Mahesh Viswanathan
Mahesh Viswanathan, Professor and Associate Head for Academics

“The CIC grant speaks to something that we’ve been trying to do, and that’s make computing education available for everyone. We do this not just through degrees but through a CS minor that any student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign can take. To interest all students, though, we must make this program as welcoming and inclusive as possible. The CIC grant will help us introduce activities that will help with this goal.”

Colleen Lewis
Colleen M. Lewis, Associate Professor

“Our department has made BPC an emphasis here for a long time. I think you see that in a lot of the pedagogy, so the CIC grant provides helpful bootstrapping for us as we put some more pieces in place. We already have so many people in our community working to make Illinois CS inclusive and welcoming, which is great. This financial support equates to a match that, when struck, will allow for even more creativity based upon the beliefs we already hold up high.”

That changed in May, as the department was awarded a two-year grant worth  $929,500 from the Center for Inclusive Computing (CIC) at Northeastern University – representing the most substantial source of funding the department has received to date for BPC.

The CIC grant will support efforts – staffing, training and programs – that ensure women are fully represented and thriving in undergraduate computing.

“Since I joined the department, we have invested significant resources into BPC, and we have made progress,” Amato said. “Over the last decade, we positively affected the percentage of women joining the undergraduate major, but we’re still not where we want to be. And we’re not where we want to be with other demographics either. 

“This grant provided us an opportunity to find some external resources to support these efforts, and it also gave us an opportunity to think about what new programs we could put in place to help us along that pathway.”

Each initiative Illinois CS has begun focusing on is directly related to four BPC-related aims.

The team constructing and implementing each goal includes Amato, Professor and Associate Head for Academics Mahesh Viswanathan, Associate Professor Colleen M. Lewis and BPC Program Coordinator Jancie Harris. The aims include the following:

  1. Improve practices for hiring, training, and evaluation of undergraduate course assistants (CA).
  2. Hire new advising and communications staff to support the recruitment and retention of women in CS+X Majors and transfer students.
  3. CS Kickstart: Summer bridge program designed for women.
  4. CS STARS: Illinois CS Student Ambassador/Research Scholars (CS STARS)  is designed for University of Illinois undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing undergraduate research in a chosen area of interest while also serving as departmental leaders to recruit women to the CS majors and empower women CS undergraduates. CS STARS will conduct research with and be mentored by a CS faculty member (6-7 hours a week) and will also engage in recruiting, mentoring, and cohort building activities (3-4 hours a week).

Once implemented here at Illinois CS, the new CA training will serve as a model for any department or unit at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign – and, beyond that, any CS department.

“We want to support all CAs as best we can, because they are leaders in our community,” Lewis said. “They have so much potential to create the inclusive and welcoming culture that we strive for constantly. We wanted to address with them what it means to be inclusive, and to identify what might occur to unintentionally create a feeling that isn’t inclusive or welcoming. This training provides additional support for them to be even more effective educators.”

The first CS Kickstart at Illinois CS took place from August 15-19, under the tutelage of Lewis and Elsa L. Gunter, Director of Undergraduate Programs. Thirty undergraduate students attended the four-day program designed to empower women in Computer Science.

“These students interact with faculty before they even have their first day of class, which helps them learn early on that we are rooting for them and committed to their success,” Lewis said.

For every aim that Illinois CS will work toward over the next two years, CIC also supports interaction between participating CS departments.

“Another aspect of this program that will be beneficial is that we can learn from other teams involved,” Viswanathan said. “There is a group of technical advisers who provide a soundboard to progress through concepts before the opportunity to deploy these ideas is upon us.”

Amato is proud of the progress on BPC efforts here at Illinois CS, and she believes the financial support from the CIC grant has been a game changer. In some instances, the very same initiatives now active after CIC funding could not get off the ground previously.

“That’s why the Center for Inclusive Computing is potentially transformative, actually, because prior to this award, funding available for these types of activities was a bit rare,” Amato said. “There’s no way we could be doing all of this now without this CIC grant.”