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Two professors are leveling the field in computing research

Editor’s note: This guest post is by Professors Maria Gini and Shana Watters from the University of Minnesota.

Research is about opening up new worlds and systematically answering questions about their possibilities. But access to research opportunities, including computer science (CS) research, is not equitable: In Canada and the United States in 2020, resident students who identified as Black, Indigenous, Latino, women and intersections of these identities made up only 12.1% of CS Ph.D. enrollments. As educators, we felt compelled to address this inequity. We learned about Google’s exploreCSR program in 2018, and it’s helped us make important progress in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

exploreCSR provides faculty with funding, community, evaluation and connections to Google researchers in order to introduce students to the world of CS research. We used our first two years of exploreCSR funding to create content for an undergraduate research course and pilot it in weekend workshops. We started with the belief that all students are capable of executing research, but needed guidance on how to get started. But once we began the workshops, we realized that we needed to first establish a foundation of what research is and how it’s done. That way, students could move from sheer curiosity to hands-on practice. We also saw a need to recognize their commitment to this work through official academic credit.

Based on our learnings from the workshops, we offered a one-credit class in 2021 called “Introduction to Undergraduate Research in Computer Science.” The course helped students develop research skills like identifying and formulating research problems, reading research papers and analyzing data. Faculty mentors from a variety of backgrounds discussed their research, and mentors from Google engaged with the students through talks, panels and mock interviews. At the end of the semester, students understood how to network, present their knowledge and develop game plans to reach their computing research goals.

Our inaugural class included 45 students with a diverse range of identities, some of whom are now doing research with faculty, receiving undergraduate research funds and completing research internships. Our students reflected that having access to researchers in both academia and the tech industry opened up new ways of thinking about research. “Learning that it’s okay to change your academic and career plans really calmed some of the worries I have,” one student shared. Another learned the value of taking risks: “If you get stuck on a problem, try to jump out of the box to view it, and you might find brand new solutions which you had never imagined.”

Our goal from the start was to prepare the next generation of researchers, including many students historically marginalized in computing. And we’re still making progress. The support we received from exploreCSR and the program’s mentors helped make our first class a rewarding learning experience for both the students and instructors. Moving forward, we will work towards improving the course based on student feedback, and developing strong partnerships with local companies. And we're proud that the University of Minnesota’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering has committed to offer "Introduction to Undergraduate Research in Computer Science" as an annual course.

As the scientist Carl Sagan said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Our students are going to explore those incredible “somethings” with purpose and direction. We look forward to their accomplishments!

Visit our website to learn more about exploreCSR and meet the 35 institutions in our 2021 cycle.

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