Duke Professors to Lead Nationwide Effort to Diversify Participation in Computing

August 4, 2021 | By Kathryn Kennedy

New $10 million grant looks to increase computing entry, retention and degree completion rates of students from historically underrepresented groups

Two headshots of women standing next to a wall

Nicki Washington (left) and Shaundra Daily (right)

The National Science Foundation has awarded two Duke faculty members $10 million to develop tools and strategies in computing education that increase the entry, retention and course or degree completion rates of high school and undergraduate students from historically underrepresented groups.

Nicki Washington, professor of the practice in Computer Science, and Shaundra Daily, professor of the practice in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science, will receive funding over the next five years to create The Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing Education (AIICE), the NSF announced on August 3. They will be supported by other Duke faculty and staff including Owen Astrachan, professor of the practice in Computer Science, and Vice President and Chief Information Officer Tracy Futhey, as well as Jen Vizas and Evan Levine, both leaders in the Office of Institutional Technology.

As the ubiquity of computing increases, Washington and Daily say it is imperative that technology creators from a diverse range of identities occupy development and leadership positions in order to avoid creating potentially harmful technologies such as facial recognition and predictive policing. And that will take investment from a much wider swath of computer science educators at the high school and post-secondary level.

“We can’t keep talking about broadening participation and centering it on students and faculty who are in the minority,” Washington said. “Prior efforts emphasize that it’s simply about access, courses and training. But that’s not the case when they’re in a class…dealing with problematic peers and faculty who then go on to lead these companies and shape the technology industry. We need to be creating better graduates.”

Their plan is to create systemic change by blending aspects of social science with computer science to increase student and educator knowledge of identity and related topics; support computer science educators and leaders nationwide in fostering academic cultures that are more inclusive of non-dominant identities; and increase policy-driven changes to computer science education in K-12 schools and higher education that infuse identity-inclusive strategies.

“There is a long history of people working to broaden participation in STEM,” Daily said. “However, I think this work is unique in that it is a broad scale effort to shape institutional policies, programs and practices that impact non-majority identities in the field and prevent us from participating fully.”

The team estimates that successful implementation of AIICE will directly impact 7,000 high school computer science teachers; 2,000 postsecondary computer science faculty and staff; 5,000 teaching assistants; and 500 U.S. computing departments. They will, in turn, impact a total of 525,000 high school and 35,000 undergraduate computer science students nationwide.

“We have a really unique opportunity to transform the discipline,” Washington said. “It’s great that NSF saw the value in this work, especially with what we have seen over the last year – the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag and #ShutDownSTEM. You saw so many Black students and educators sharing their experiences at predominantly white institutions.

“This is an opportunity for us to make sure everyone understands not only those (Black) experiences, but those of people who identify as Indigenous, Latino, disabled, and other underrepresented groups as well,” she continued. “The challenges (in computing education) span race, gender, sexuality, class, socioeconomic status.”

The initiative builds on a dedication to diversifying computing education that Washington and Daily – both Black women computer scientists – have led for years. Following Washington’s arrival at Duke in 2020, they created the Cultural Competence in Computing (3C) Fellows Program, which recently completed recruiting for its second cohort. An assessment tool from 3C will also be deployed as part of AIICE, Washington noted. But both professors emphasize that partnerships beyond Duke will be crucial to accomplishing this work.

“This grant extends this work to the K-12 level and takes a collective impact approach to change the computing landscape,” Daily said. “Duke is the lead university; however, University of Oregon, Mount Holyoke College, the Kapor Center, Georgia Tech’s CONSTELLATIONS, the Computer Science Teachers Association, the Center for Inclusive Computing, and Reboot Representation are all partners who will collaboratively work to impact the field as a whole.”

“Knowing the people doing the work and the organizations that have been at the forefront of this effort was crucial,” Washington noted. “We wanted to partner with people who were vested and had evidence that they were vested.”

“It was like creating our own Avengers team in computing education,” she added. “Who do we know that will get the work done? Who will roll up their sleeves and be in this battle with us?”

The Duke team and four other awardees from this funding cycle join eight existing NSF-funded alliances, and the NSF INCLUDES National Network of more than 3,000 partners dedicated to broadening participation in STEM by creating access and opportunities for all U.S. residents through public, private and academic partnerships.

“We want to make sure we grow our network as much as possible,” Washington said, “whether that is through adding collaborators at the partner level or affiliates who are going to take the tools that we create into the classroom.”

Kathryn Kennedy is executive director of communications for Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences