Computer science professor Zoë Wood teaching a class on March 2, 2023. Credit: Shae Ashamalla / Mustang News

Looking around his classes, computer science sophomore Jesus Meza notices the glaring imbalance of diversity. Classes are dominated by white men and a high Asian population, while there are a handful of other students of color, and the number of women stalls at one to two in a class of 30, he said.

According to computer science professor Zoë Wood, not only is the department lacking in diversity, “students who are categorized within the federal categorization of underrepresented minorities leave computer science at a higher rate than white students.”

However, a new program led by Cal Poly as an alliance of six CSU campuses plans to change that. 

New initiative to retain underrepresented CS students

The National Science Foundation (NSF) supplied a grant of $1.8 million under their Directorate for Broadening Participation in Computing to create curriculum to show how students can influence and impact the communities they are from. The project is particularly aimed at retaining underrepresented Hispanic or Latino students. 

Meza said the “backgrounds” of students play a vital role in career goals and the “real-world application” of a computer science degree. Meza himself volunteered at a nonprofit in high school in his hometown of Salinas. This showed and could see that kind of work in his future. 

“[Salina] is a majority Latino population, so it would be good to sort of get more people into [different career paths] instead of just going, getting a job and just doing it for the money,” Meza said. 

This idea guided Wood, the initiative’s lead principal investigator. She said there is a nationwide focus on integrating social responsibility or ethics into computing.

“It’s been shown that if students can feel like their academic goals are aligned with their community goals or their personal goals to better society or help their community, they have a better sense of belonging in their field of study,” she said.

Because of this, the alliance is developing “curricular interventions and pedagogical changes in the early computer science classes” to integrate these ideas, while focusing on “community action computing,” Wood said. 

For instance, students can learn not only to write programs for big companies like Google, but to create programming to help nonprofits — like an adoption page for a local pet shelter, she said. 

What we hope is that students will be able to see their own goals reflected in that and want to stay in computing.

Zoë Wood, Computer science professor

This program is also particularly targeted at Latinx populations. Wood said the majority of CSU students who are federally categorized underrepresented minorities are Hispanic/Latino students, so the bulk of students leaving the major are Hispanic/Latino students. The other five schools in the alliance are also Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI). 

“While Cal Poly is trying to provide leadership on the pedagogical, we’re actually looking to the other sites to lead us in terms of how to build a successful computing program for Hispanic/ Latino students because Cal Poly is committed to becoming an HSI,” Wood said. 

According to Wood, this project has been three to four years in the making. It sparked when, locally, a group of computer science faculty engaged with research papers about computer science education, and these issues began to surface. 

Before the grant was submitted last December, Wood said there were “early hesitancies” in initial meetings with other CSU faculty. 

“[Initially, there was resistance in] how can we fit this in? There’s so much technical content in our classes, so we don’t have time to talk about this,” Wood said. Yet, over the course of a few months, faculty came around and agreed on the importance of this new curriculum. 

“I feel like the people have been brave about trying to really expand their conceptions about what intro computer science will include,” she said. 

Wood said these classes can help prepare students to join organizations like Cal Poly’s branch of Hack4Impact, a student-run organization developing projects for local nonprofits. 

Wood notes that nonprofits and the government are having a hard time hiring developers because industry jobs can pay so much more. But, there are students interested “in having a job that is more fulfilling” and what can “help all of society.”

The first of these classes was taught by co-principal investigator and computer science professor Ayaan Kazerouni this fall, which was mandatory for computer science majors who did not have AP computer science in high school. Wood is teaching a class this quarter, required for GRC students with a UI/UX concentration, looking at web-based visualizations. 

Zoë Wood teaches her class about web-based visualizations. Credit: Shae Ashamalla / Mustang News

Computer science freshman Oleksandr Gorpynich also proposed hiring diverse faculty, so students are more willing to reach out. 

‘It would also help out if professors were made aware of these issues and the demographic differences and went out of their way to help those students that might feel left out,” Gorpynich said. 

While Gorpynich wasn’t previously aware of this new series of classes, he proposed making these kinds of classes mandatory as an incentive, as some computer science students just try to “do all the required classes and leave.”

Why students are leaving

To account for students leaving the major, professor and Computer Science and Software Engineering Department Chair Chris Lupo said there is some “normal transition that first year,” within the College of Engineering. 

In his conversations with students who decided to leave, Lupo said the reasons for doing so vary. Some students feel pressure from parents to major in computer science but have no personal interest in it, some have issues with the department or college and others have felt their “confidence broken” by their courses. 

Lupo said the experience of incoming students is all over the board. He’s heard from students from Silicon Valley with prior computing experiences and say, “I wrote my first compiler when I was 17.”

“That can be really intimidating for [other] students,” Lupo said.

Prior efforts to retain a diverse student body

These issues and efforts are not new for the Computer Science Department. Just one of the many initiatives was introduced by a group of Cal Poly faculty — back in 2018. 

The research paper detailing the efforts talked about how retention rates for computer science majors are among the lowest on campus — especially among students of color and women. 

The paper discussed a CS0 course that launched in 2010. The course features different tracks students can choose from, such as robotics, gaming, music and mobile apps. According to the paper, “this allows students to learn the basics of programming, teamwork and college-level study in a domain that is of personal interest.” Initial assessment showed increased performance in later CS0 courses and greater student retention. 

Research contributor and computer science professor John Clements said the lack of diversity already present in classes can further incentivize underrepresented students to leave the major — making the push for retention all the more important. 

“I think their conclusion is sort of a natural human conclusion, like, ‘Gosh, I guess I don’t belong here. There’s nobody else like me here,’” Clements said. “California is, at this point, a relatively diverse state in certain ways, so [the lack of diversity] is kind of appalling. Cal Poly really stands out for our lack of diversity, and that’s something we need to do better.”

The “classic engineering outlook” focused on “rigor and suffering” should be let go, Clements said, even though classes should be challenging and come with high expectations.  

“This idea that [CS curriculum] is somehow a bootcamp, or only strong survive or ‘look on both sides of you, two of you will be out of here’ —  the whole idea we’re gonna try to kill you, I think is very unnecessary,” Clements said. “[This class] kind of opened the door to some kind of change in the first year.”

The future of diversity within computer science

The fight to retain under-served students goes beyond the classroom, but into the industry as a whole, Lupo said. 

“In the classroom, we do better with more experiences, different perspectives,” Lupo said. “Design solutions for problems is better with the theory of pursuing inclusion. On the other side of it upon graduation, you’ll see the tech industries are really trying to support that as well. So if we’re not producing the people that they want to hire, then we’re doing a disservice to the community.”

Computing that incorporates unique experiences and understanding of a variety of backgrounds also simply makes the best work, every source reiterated. 

Lupo organizes outreach programs to connect with underrepresented and female populations before they reach college. He is also working with community colleges — “which tend to be a more diverse group, socioeconomically as well as racially” — to create a 2+2 program. This would be  a well-defined curriculum path for students coming from community colleges to finish their computer science degree at Cal Poly in two years.

Wood is overall interested in “transforming computer science culture” and working with computer science faculty to “embrace the fact that socio-technical, ethical concerns are something that all of our students really need to be thinking about.”

She said she wants to give students the opportunity to pursue more computing options, since many haven’t had the opportunity to before. 

“I want to broaden participation because I do think technology is so important — It’s a part of the future. We need everyone’s voice,” Wood said. “And we need people who are thinking about ethical considerations of, ‘How are we helping society with the choices we’re making?’”