Service learning project seeks to diversify computing

A man wearing a purple plaid shirt and a grey suit jacket stands at the front of a computer lab/classroom. Seats in the room are filled by students.

Dr. Bo Brinkman, associate professor of computer science and software engineering, leads the NSF-funded Electronics and Computing Service Scholars program, which seeks to increase the participation of women and minorities in engineering and computing.

There’s no question that women are much better represented in STEM fields than they were in the 1970s. For instance, Census Bureau data show that 47% of all mathematics workers today are women, up from 15% in 1970.

But while upwards of 40% of today’s life/physical science and social science jobs are also held by women, only 13% of engineering jobs are, and just 27% of computing jobs. In fact the rate of women’s representation in computing has actually declined since 1990.

Dr. Bo Brinkman, an associate professor in Miami University’s Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, lays some of the blame for this underrepresentation on the culture within the technology industry, which he describes as “toxic.”

“The stereotype of the geeky guy sitting alone in his basement coding all night is self-reinforcing,” he says. “That becomes the standard of performance.”

Brinkman points out that that kind of solitary pursuit of an individual goal is in contrast to collaborative pursuit of a communal goal, which is what characterizes predominately female “helping” professions, like teaching, social work, and nursing.

“Women and minorities tend to have more communal goals than white men,” Brinkman says, citing the results of research conducted by Miami psychology professor Dr. Amanda Diekman. “If we want to attract more women to computing, then we need to do more to welcome people who want to work with others and in the service of others.”

To that end, Brinkman – in collaboration with Diekman, electrical and computer engineering faculty professor Donald Ucci and assistant professor Peter Jamieson, and computer science and software engineering professor James Kiper – is implementing a service learning program that lets engineering and computer science students apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to help solve real problems in the local community.

As we continue to integrate computing devices and the Internet into our lives in ways we may not even always be conscious of, Brinkman says there’s enormous potential to solve big and small problems. “In that way,” he says, “computing really is a helping profession. This service learning program is designed to make that idea explicit, in order to attract women and others who want to serve their communities.”

Supported by nearly $621,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the program will include an Electronics and Computing Service Scholars living learning community (LLC) and will provide financial support for student-led service projects and for student travel to professional conferences. Applications are currently being accepted for the first cohort of Service Scholars, who will be enrolled in the fall of 2015.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Featured photo (left) by viZZZual.com via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. Photo of Bo Brinkman by Miami University Photo Services.

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