Black History Month celebrations long have touted the contributions of African Americans in technology. In this issue, Black Issues profiles 10 individuals who are in the process of making history of their own in the arena of information technology. While much of American history documents technological innovation in agriculture and industry, our list of higher education innovators and leaders focuses on the ongoing digital revolution that has been transforming world society and economy over the past several decades. Our list, while not intended to be a definitive grouping of innovators and leaders, heralds people we call “information technologists.” Information technologists hail from many disciplines, which include computer science, information technology administration, school curriculum development, electrical engineering and other fields being transformed by digital technology.
As a well-seasoned veteran of academia, Dr. Clarence Ellis easily could shut his door to students and cloister himself in research.So instead, what is Ellis doing this semester? Teaching a Computing 101 class to undergraduates who aren’t even computing or engineering majors. “The computer is not just a machine,” says Ellis, of the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It can help someone. This class is an important way to reach many students here.”Ellis, 58, divides his course between teaching students how to give instructions to computers and teaching them computer applications. The class enrolls about 160 students.Since joining Colorado in 1992, he has insisted on periodically teaching the introductory course to encourage students of all ethnicities to expand their horizons. That message wasn’t conveyed to him when he was in school, he says.“Instead, the message at that time was, ‘well, you have taken one basic math class and you passed, so you don’t need to take any more math. You’ll get better grades if you don’t stretch yourself,’ ” Ellis recalls teachers telling him. “People put together an image of what I was supposed to be.“So I always tell my students to push,” he says. His own initiation to computers was happenstance. As a teenager in the late 1950s, Ellis got a part-time job to help support his family. He guarded an insurance company’s computer — this was before microcircuits and it had 2,400 vacuum tubes. Ellis prevented tampering and vandalism overnight. But working the graveyard shift by himself provided plenty of time to read more than 20 operating manuals. Consequently, he also groomed himself to troubleshoot for his employer.In 1969, Ellis reportedly became the first African American in the country to earn a doctorate in computer science.He has worked as a researcher and developer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, IBM, Xerox, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp., Los Alamos Scientific Labs and Argonne National Lab. He has taught at Stanford University, the University of Texas, MIT, Stevens Institute of Technology and in Taiwan. His research spans groupware, coordination theory, office systems, databases, software engineering and workflow systems.While going out of his way to influence non-computer science majors, Ellis also steers students toward graduate studies in computer science and related fields. In the 1990s, he helped establish the 10-week Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training (SMART) program at the university. The SMART program offers 10 undergraduates internships in science and engineering as well as orientation to life as a graduate student at CU-Boulder. — By Lydia Lum
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