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Number of Blacks Lagging in Computer Science Field

by Jamal Eric Watson

ATLANTA — The National Society of Blacks in Computing held its inaugural conference in Atlanta, with the goal of increasing the numbers of Blacks in the computer science field within the academy.

The conference, which included three tracks focused on undergraduates, graduate students and future faculty/research scientists, attracted more than 90 participants from across the country.

Although the number of Black Ph.D.s in computer science has steadily increased over the past few years, experts say that a lot more work still needs to be done.

“I’m very much encouraged by the numbers and the trajectory that we are on,” says Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and Chair of Computer & Information Science & Engineering at the University of Florida.

Still, when he graduated with a Ph.D. in computer science in 2000, he was among nine other African-Americans who earned the doctoral degree that year. Last year, there were 15 Blacks who earned a Ph.D. in the field.

“Although the bare numbers have increased, the percentage didn’t move,” says Gilbert, who was one of the conveners of this weekend’s gathering. He said that, at Ph.D.-granting institutions throughout the United States, there are currently more than 400 African-American undergraduates who are pursuing computer science degrees.

“There’s a pool out there that we can draw from,” says Gilbert, who formed the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Science (IAAMCS), a resource for African-American computer science students and faculty, thanks to a grant that he received from the National Science Foundation.

According to Gilbert, the objective of IAAMCS is to increase the number of African-Americans receive Ph.D. degrees in computing science and to promote and engage students in teaching and training opportunities, while adding more diverse researchers into the advanced technology workforce.

Topics at the conference varied. For example, there was a session for undergraduates on how to craft a personal statement for graduate school, while another session focused on the tenure process and publishing in academic journals within the field.

“There were broad topics,” says Gilbert, adding that participants had the opportunity to network with each other and to talk about the isolation that so many of them face by working in a field where there are so few African-Americans.

Within the academic world, some say that Gilbert has done at the University of Florida what Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. did at Harvard University in the late 1990s when he assembled his “dream team” to teach in African-American studies. Gilbert has attracted some of the best and brightest Black faculty in computing to teach at Florida.

“The NSBC conference is critical because there are unique aspects of the African-American experience in computing that only can be addressed in house,” says Dr. Kyla McMullen, an assistant professor in computer science at UF and chair of this year’s conference. “The students who attend represent a nation of isolated Black computer scientists. The conference gives them a sense of community, a network of resources and affirmation that people who look like them can succeed in computing.”

Dr. Kinnis Gosha, an assistant professor of computer science at Morehouse College, agrees.

“I think this conference is very critical in terms of community building and forming social capital in the computing sense,” says Gosha, a conference organizer, adding that his colleagues in the field have provided critical advice in the early stages of his teaching career. “It’s therapeutic in a sense that you can be vulnerable and identify mentors who can give you that guidance and confidence.”

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at jwatson1@diverseeducation.com. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson.