How SF State is working to change the face(s) of computer science

A large group of professors and teachers pose for the camera, all wearing bright blue shirts.

SF State professors and San Francisco Unified School District teachers gather for a summer training institute

Three projects aim to boost underrepresented groups in a diversity-challenged field

It’s no secret that tech has a diversity problem. As of 2017, just over 7 percent of computer programmers in the U.S. were black, just over 5 percent were Hispanic or Latino and around 21 percent were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Several San Francisco State University programs are working to amend that, through programs funded by the National Science Foundation to the tune of more than $2.7 million.

Part of the gap, says Professor of Computer Science Ilmi Yoon, is the often abstract, one-size-fits-all way the subject is usually taught in schools. That can be discouraging, especially for students from groups that aren’t well-represented in the discipline. “Computer science is really interesting,” she said. “But it doesn’t look so attractive to women and underrepresented groups.”

Yoon hopes to change that through Promoting Inclusivity in Computer Science (PINC), a San Francisco State program supported by a $1.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. The PINC team recently launched a new computer science minor for non-majors designed to help retain women and underrepresented students by creating faculty and student mentoring programs, letting the students design their own passion projects and making use of teaching techniques that connect with students’ interests.

“We like to show that computer science isn’t abstract, it’s related to what students want to do. Showing those connections makes a huge difference,” said Yoon.

The first group of 20 PINC students graduated last spring, their final projects tackling everything from an app that collects health resources for SF State students to one that searches DNA sequences for fragments of HIV genetic material. The grant will support over 160 students in the minor and 120 computer science students as mentors in the next five years.

SF State also recently joined the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI), a national group of universities focused on increasing the representation of Hispanic students in computer science. Yoon will lead SF State’s involvement in the alliance, which is funded by a $400,000 NSF grant. The alliance will provide unique opportunities for mentorship and professional development for students at SF State, including the potential to participate in a residency at the Google campus in Mountain View.

Programs like these are crucial to filling the workforce’s increasing need for employees with advanced computer skills and ensuring that students from underrepresented groups are equipped to take advantage of those opportunities. At the same time, other SF State faculty are aiming to solve the same problem in a different place: K–12 classrooms.

Many middle- and high school computer science teachers lack preparation in teaching the subject, says Assistant Professor of Computer Science Hao Yue. “They are transferred from other subjects: mathematics, physics, chemistry or statistics,” he explained.

Yue is the lead on a project called CS4SF, which aims to offer training and support for K-12 computer science teachers. Part of that vision is a weeklong “Summer Institute” where San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) teachers can learn specialized computer science knowledge as well as teaching techniques that help retain underrepresented students. The program was funded by another $1 million NSF grant, which began in October. 

The project will also support local computer science education by placing SF State seniors majoring in computer science in middle- and high school classrooms around San Francisco as teaching assistants. “They’ll learn current curriculum in computer science education, and they’ll have the ability to develop a lesson plan and deliver it in the classroom,” said Yue. That will give SFUSD computer science teachers extra support in the classroom while providing hands-on teaching experience for students who may go on to fill the need for qualified teachers in the subject.

Though they focus on meeting the education and workforce needs of the Bay Area, both CS4SF and PINC address challenges faced by communities across the country — which is why Yoon and her team hope to see their program spread beyond San Francisco. “We’d also like to develop a good model so other universities nationwide can adopt it from us,” said Yoon.

Co-principal investigators in PINC are Assistant Professors of Computer Science Anagha Kulkarni and Abeer AlJarrah, Assistant Professor of Psychology Shasta Ihorn, Assistant Professors of Biology Pleuni Pennings and Rori Rohlfs, Associate Professor of Biology Scott Roy and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Nicole Adelstein. Co-principal investigators for CS4SF are Professor of Computer Science Ilmi Yoon, Associate Professor of Education Patricia Donohue and Professor of Mathematics Eric Hsu.