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Rice Computer Science expands access to students

Faculty member and Ph.D. alumna Risa Myers helps broaden participation in computing at Rice

Woman in purple top stands in an outdoor stone hallway on Rice University's campus

“How can we make computer science degrees more accessible to those who are interested but don’t have prior experience or exposure to computer science?” asked Risa Myers, Rice University Assistant Teaching Professor of Computer Science. She is leading a new initiative to better prepare these students for early success in their Rice CS courses.

As part of  the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) initiative, the Rice program leverages the previous success of a CS track in the university’s Rice Emerging Scholars Program. Along with RESP faculty director Angel Marti-Arbona, School of Engineering Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Outreach Cecilia Fernández, Senior Associate Provost Matt Taylor, and computer science faculty members Dan Wallach, Todd Treangen, and Rodrigo Ferreira, Myers submitted a proposal to the NSF to expand and improve the RESP CS track and was awarded a two year $300K grant to do so.

She said, “I have a number of aspirations for the CS-RESP program, some short-term and some long-term. In the short term, we hope to help some students succeed at Rice in computer science, who might otherwise not have. During the program, we plan to tackle some stereotypes about computer science that are often psychological barriers and teach these students how higher education works. 

“We will provide each participant with a mentor and advisor to help them navigate both the major and Rice University. They will be introduced to some of the challenging topics they will see as first-year students studying computer science, so when they revisit them during the academic year, the topics will be familiar. They will have a chance to meet students and upperclassmen who can provide friendship and support.”

In the long-term, Myers and her team expect to make the CS-RESP program sustainable through NSF BPC grant supplements and provide a model and starting point for other programs and/or other institutions. “Our approach should be adaptable to other subject domains (e.g. chemistry, bioengineering) and other schools,” said Myers, who hopes to engage more Rice computer science faculty in helping the program succeed. Not only will CS faculty be regular or guest speakers in the program, they will also be involved in advising and curriculum development and serve as role models and resources.

For Myers, the initiative strikes close to home. “Why does this matter to me? As someone from a historically excluded community in STEM who also attended a top-tier university, while coming from a typical suburban high school, I really had no idea what to expect at college,” she said.

“I didn't understand how higher education worked, and as a result, I missed out on important and valuable opportunities. Not seeing people who looked like me in academia made me think that there wasn't space for me there. It wasn't until much later in life that I returned to graduate school and academia. I'd like our students to see role models and consider a wider set of options much earlier than I did. I'd like them to have peers from similar backgrounds who they can journey with.”

Myers believes helping students from historically excluded communities and under-resourced environments be successful in computer science will have a significant impact on Rice’s CS undergraduate and graduate programs and yield other benefits.

“For starters, we get a wider perspective on issues to be addressed and problems to solve. Diversity leads to different ideas about how to approach a problem and how a solution can reach a broader audience or people who would otherwise not have benefitted. Keeping these students in computer science enables them to serve as role models for future generations of students and workers. If you see someone who looks like you in a particular role, it is so much easier to envision yourself in that position, forming a positive feedback loop,” said Myers.

Equally important benefits of the program include the personal impact of the CS-RESP initiative for each participant. Students in the CS-RESP program will dive into the introductory computer science courses and the kinds of assignments and group projects they will experience. The participants will also be given laptops appropriate for writing code, laptops they will keep and use as Rice students.

Participating in typical CS class discussions and projects will help create a foundation for their future success. Some high schools are better at preparing their students to participate in rapid-fire brainstorming sessions whether it occurs within a group around a table or between a professor and students around the classroom. It can feel startling the first time a new student experiences it and the longer it takes the student to jump into the discussion, the less confident they feel about their contributions.

The CS-RESP program also establishes a network of students who are developing these communication and interaction skills, a cohort that will be supported by Rice through the participants’ next four years. Myers noted that the most successful students seemed to intuitively navigate the various systems and processes, but only a portion of each entering class intuitively decode what may seem like unwritten rules. 

“If you don’t know anyone who has gone through a competitive computer science program recently, you probably don’t realize how important it is to go to office hours,” said Myers. 

“Get to know your professors. Students who are ‘afraid’ to go to office hours miss out on good conversations and insights that can be useful later on even if the student has no trouble mastering the current assignments. Office hours also allow you to build relationships with your instructors and classmates. You never know when a colleague or a friend in industry will ask the professor to suggest a student for a job, internship, scholarship, etc. You might be invited to TA for the professor. Conversations with faculty members can sometimes reveal unanticipated opportunities.”

Alumni, faculty, and industry representatives who would like to share more insights to success or get involved with the 2024 CS-RESP initiative should contact Myers.

 

Photo credit: Photo of Risa Myers by Ivy Gonzalez.

Carlyn Chatfield, contributing writer