Massachusetts Bay Community College and Framingham State received a $210,351 Higher Education Innovation grant from the Baker-Polito administration Aug. 14 to address “equity by increasing the number of underrepresented … students pursuing computer science (CS),” according to the written grant proposal.
It further states, “The project is also designed to address the growing workforce gap” in this “high-growth field in the Greater Boston region and the lack of racial and gender diversity among those working in CS and IT jobs” by focusing on Black, Latinx, and female students, specifically. These are populations that have been highlighted as “underrepresented and underserved” in tech fields.
According to the grant abstract, 50 high school students – mostly juniors and seniors from Framingham High School and Joseph P. Keefe Regional Technical School – will take college-level CS classes and also “participate in career and personal development activities” in order to “promote their interest in CS” at no cost to them.
Additionally, 60 undecided first-year college students from MassBay and FSU will each take one CS course at their respective institutions, as well as participate in similar personal and career development activities.
The grant will enable the creation of a consortium, led by MassBay, of the two higher education institutions and the two high schools, which further builds on the “existing relationships between the four institutions,” it states.
By the fall of 2020, the initiative intends for 70% of the 110 students – 77 students in total – to elect to major in computer science or a related field, such as information systems or business IT.
The grant meets one of three focuses set by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) – “transforming student success and empowering classroom and campus leadership,” states the written proposal.
The Higher Education Innovation Fund, formerly known as the Performance Innovation Fund, is built into the state budget and “supports competitive grants to campuses and consortia, as well as certain system-wide initiatives, to make progress on goals articulated by the [Massachusetts Board of Higher Education],” according to mass.edu.
These goals include strategic initiatives to improve and increase accessibility to STEM education, emphasize campus collaboration, and develop the incoming workforce.
A Sept. 27 FSU press release states, “The [DHE] gave priority to proposals that focused on achieving greater equity among students by increasing college-going and college completion rates of students of color, low-income students, and those who are the first in their families to attend college.
“To maximize the impact of the funds and promote collaboration within the public system, this year’s winners were chosen from among campus consortia, representing institutions that are committed to working as partners to advance student success strategies,” it adds.
The Baker-Polito administration awarded a total of $1.15 million in “competitive grants” to four community colleges – Bunker Hill, North Shore, Northern Essex, and MassBay – and two state universities – Salem State and Worcester State – to “help the state’s public campuses support the needs and talents of an increasing diverse student population.”
FSU Dean of STEM Margaret Carroll said, “The goal is to increase the percent of students from underrepresented groups in the sciences. Computer science is an area where there is a particularly big gulf between white men and the rest of the world, basically. It’s white men and Asian men, and then women, and then African American, Latinx folks.”
The press release included statistics obtained from the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank, which indicate the national makeup of the workforce in CS fields is 62% White, 10% Black, and 12% Latinx. In the Greater Boston region in 2016, those numbers were 5.1% for Latinx workers and 2.5% for Black workers.
Furthermore, it states, “Participation by women in CS, IS, and IT undergraduate programs also remains low. Women received only 16.4% of bachelor’s degrees in CS in 2015 and non-Asian minorities received only 15.5%,” according to a 2015 survey from the Computing Research Association.
The lack of non-Asian minorities in CS and related fields can be attributed to many factors stemming from inadequate educational infrastructure and resources, starting at a young age.
According to the written proposal, “A recent Google report found Black and Latinx secondary students have high interests in computing, but many of their schools have limited or outdated technology resources.
“In addition, half of these students do not have a computer at home. A further impediment is students’ – and sometimes teachers’ – beliefs that they would not be successful in CS fields,” it adds.
Though diversity has been long identified as a focus in the makeup of STEM fields, it was over the summer that faculty and administrators from both FSU and MassBay started to have discussions about what they could do to address this workforce gap.
Millie Gonzalez, former FSU interim chief officer of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement, Satish Penmatsa, computer science professor, and Karen Druffel, management and business IT professor, sat down together over the summer before the 2019-20 academic year to brainstorm and write.
The principal investigator of the grant is Lynn Moore, chief diversity officer at MassBay, who submitted the written grant proposal to the state.
One problem identified by Moore and Penmatsa is that students from underrepresented backgrounds might not feel comfortable in environments where they are vastly outnumbered by the majority racial groups in CS.
Penmatsa said, “If those students have similar backgrounds [to their classmates],” with respect to both educational and social backgrounds, “it will be easier for them to learn.”
Some of the grant initiatives are to increase outreach to and engagement with families of underrepresented students, such as inviting them to “community-building events,” including “community dinners and career education sessions.”
Moore said students can bring their families to sessions where they will participate in hands-on activities, such as tinkering with micro:bit computers, which are “handheld, programmable micro-computers that can be used for all sorts of cool creations, from robots to musical instruments,” according to its website.
Families and students alike will also be invited to attend “mindset workshops,” during which teachers and professors will address “implicit beliefs about the factors that control students’ success or failure,” according to the proposal.
“Pervasive cultural stereotypes promote the notion that Whites and Asians outperform Blacks and Latinos, and that males outperform females in STEM fields,” the proposal states. “These stereotypes are built on a belief that fixed factors determine success.”
FSU is planning to get involved by hosting the mindset workshops on campus, which MassBay plans to do as well. They aim to get underway this spring 2020 semester.
Moore said family involvement would greatly change the outcome of student success for the better.
According to the budget worksheet included in the proposal, grant funding will be used to provide 50 personal Microsoft Surface tablets and internet hotspots to program participants, support staff salaries, and cover family dinners and travel expenses.
Penmatsa said the program would provide transportation to nearby companies in the MetroWest area, including Bose, TJX, and IBM contractors so that students have the ability to meet with industry professionals and cultivate those relationships.
Druffel highlighted one of the hardships students face nowadays is having to find internships as early as junior year in order to build up their resume for college applications. In order to feasibly do so, they must start cultivating interest in their freshman and sophomore years.
“The timeline for getting internships has really compressed since I had to worry about that, or even since my children had to worry about that,” she said. “I think the biggest obstacle is to have students start to build these kinds of paths, in terms of exploring industry and potential jobs.”
Penmatsa said the grant would benefit both students and faculty by “increasing motivation.
“When students are motivated, professors are motivated, too,” he said.
Constanza Cabello, FSU vice president of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement, said, “What is great about this grant is it’s creating access and opportunity many folks don’t already have. Whether it’s providing courses or giving laptops to folks to be able to actually explore this as a field, it’s awesome.”
She praised the strength of the relationships between the high schools and higher education institutions. “What’s cool about this is that we’re working with MassBay on this – we’re sharing a mission. We’re creating this pipeline – not only with the community college into the four-year institution, but also with the high schools.
“What’s unique about the grant is that it’s cross-divisional in a lot of ways. We’re talking not only about academic affairs and offering courses – we’re talking about diversity and inclusion. We’re talking about IT. We’re talking about growth mindset and student development.
“It touches so many different areas of the campus with just one grant,” Cabello said.
FSU President F. Javier Cevallos said, “More and more, we are looking at ways that we can reach underrepresented populations prior to when they graduate from high school, so we can begin helping them gain the skills and tools needed to succeed when they arrive at college.
“This initiative is particularly exciting because it provides a pipeline into a field that has growing job opportunities, but a shortage of candidates from diverse backgrounds,” he added.
Cevallos also praised the relationships between the institutions and thanked the state government for its support.
He said, “We are fortunate to enjoy a strong partnership with MassBay Community College, Framingham High School, and Keefe Tech High School, which enables us to work together on innovative initiatives such as this. I’m grateful to the Baker-Polito administration for supporting our proposal.”