Associate Professor of Sociology is Awarded NSF Grant to Broaden Participation in Computing

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Of the 33,984 awarded computer science (CS) bachelor’s degrees in 2020, only 21% of CS graduates identified as women, 3% as Black, and 8.5% as Hispanic (Zweben & Bizot, 2021). Susan Fisk, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology, is using her expertise in social-psychology to change that and improve the field of computing.

Susan Fisk

“There are a lot of women, Black and Hispanic students who take computing classes and who consequently get turned away from the field because of their experiences in those courses,” Fisk said. “This is reflected in the fact that we have not seen much demographic change in the graduates of computer science departments, despite great efforts to broaden participation in computing. This is problematic for society at large, as we need more computer scientists, and we have this huge pool of people that we are not tapping into. In addition, all of the technology we use is created by a fairly homogeneous group of people, which can stifle innovation and reduce the likelihood that the technology meets the needs of our heterogeneous population.”

Fisk was awarded her third National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to continue her work on broadening participation in computing and improving undergraduate STEM education. 

In her current $3.6 million NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) grant (of which Kent State University will receive $307 thousand), Fisk will be working with the Students & Technology in Academia, Research, and Service (STARS) Computing Corps Alliance, a BPC program that has been funded by the NSF since 2006. 

Image of a woman fixing a computer

STARS is a national network of regional partnerships among higher education, K-12 schools, industry and community organizations with a shared mission to broaden the participation of women, under-represented minorities and people with disabilities in computing. 

As a BPC program, STARS is unique in that it includes a range of tailored engagement programming shown to increase persistence in computing (i.e., tiered mentoring, service learning and outreach, research experiences, a conference for STARS students, etc.), as opposed to being a BPC program that engages students in a singular fashion.

“Most of the grant funding is going to be used to keep the program running,” Fisk said. “But, we now have the budget to better evaluate the efficacy of the program and to further our understanding of why the program is working. Beyond helping us evaluate the STARS program, this research will increase our theoretical knowledge of which interventions are most effective for broadening participation in computing, and how this varies by a students’ intersectional identity.” 

As a principal investigator on the research team, Fisk will be collecting data on about 5,000 K-12 participants throughout the nation to learn how the outreach conducted by college-aged students in the STARS program impacts younger people. 

“One of the things that is really interesting to me when we think about how people are making career choices is how much identity plays into these processes,” Fisk said. “If you are a young woman or a young Black or Hispanic student, you probably haven't seen a lot of people who look like you in computing. This might make you think that computing is not the right place for you. But the outreach conducted by college-aged STARS students brings a diverse group of people into K12 classrooms. So we are trying to measure the impact of that experience: how having someone who looks like you teach you computer science impacts your persistence in computing.”

Because Fisk has been conducting research on the STARS program since 2020, she has already learned a great deal about the STARS program and its effects on students. 

Vector graphic of women

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“We have this fantastic dataset because the STARS program has such a large population of women and Black students, and we have survey responses from them dating back to 2006,” Fisk said. “This allows us to run statistical analyses on their intersectional experiences in computing in a way that researchers often cannot due to small sample sizes. So, for instance, we can examine what interventions are most effective at increasing students’ persistence in computing, and how this varies for Black women compared to white women.” 

Her overall conclusion? STARS makes computing a better space for more people. 

“From all the research I've conducted, the surveys I've seen and the interviews I've done, it’s a tremendously positive experience for students and staff,” Fisk said. “It’s a positive experience for white students, women, Black students, and Hispanic students. It helps students persist in computing and helps them find more meaning in it. If you have an opportunity to get involved in STARS, you should.”

Learn more about the STARS program and how to get involved. 

Learn more about Kent State’s computer science programs.

UPDATED: Thursday, June 20, 2024 04:25 AM
Pilar Lewis