Friday, October 2, 2009

Huge Drop Off in African American Computer Scientists Impacts BDPA Membership Levels

Membership levels have been dropping in BDPA over the past few years. Part of the reason for the decreased membership is simple -- large segments of the U.S. population are not considering careers in IT. Few students are enrolling in computer science courses, and a dwindling number of those are African American. [SOURCE]

There has been a “huge drop off” in the number of computer scientists entering into the workforce since 2000, said Jan Cuny, the program officer at the National Science Foundation who oversees efforts to broaden participation in computing.

Seventy percent fewer students have majored in computer science since 2000 according to Computing Research Association data. The Higher Education Research Institute has determined that only 1% of students are majoring in computer science.

"At the graduate level, however, non-resident aliens become a major factor while minority enrollment in general plummets to very small percentages," according to Anthony Chow, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
These statistics impact BDPA in a very direct manner. If we hope to live up to our mission of advancing the careers of African American in the IT industry from the classroom to the boardroom ... then we need to get busy at the 'classroom' level in a much more direct manner.

The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts high demand for programmers. Its Occupational Handbook for 2006-2016 lists computer application software engineers as the fourth most in-demand occupation due to "increased applications of emerging technologies" and the growing complexity of businesses. Software engineers for systems are listed at number 25.

BDPA leaders at local and national level understand that this trend is not a good one for people of African descent in America ... our nation will be unable to produce enough students for the jobs that are out there if large segments of the population do not participate in computer science-related careers.

Retention of African American employees is another issue. Nearly half of all people of color leave technology jobs to enter other occupations, said National Association for the Advancement of Colored People vice president Deborah Bey. We have seen this trend within BDPA. Our inability to maintain high member retention in our 45 BDPA chapters is partially because our members are leaving the IT industry.

Isolation is a key factor for a higher attrition rate among African Americans. Our members continally tell us that they enjoy BDPA because of our networking opportunities ... our members cherish it when they can associate with people that have similar backgrounds and interests.

"If someone is the only woman or minority in a company, they will often not attract a peer group or informal mentor as easily as someone who is part of the majority", said Teresa Dahlberg, director of the Diversity in Information Technology Institute at UNC Charlotte.
BDPA Education & Technology Foundation (BETF) funds Student Information Technology Education & Scholarship (SITES) program that targets K-12 students. However, BDPA's strength has been at the high school level. Perhaps it is time for us to work a little harder to impact on our youth in elementary school.

"Many women and minorities are being turned off in the fourth and fifth grade before they even know what computer science is," the NSF’s Cuny said. "There are a number of things women don't understand about computing; they think they are insolated in front of a monitor."
I'm only aware of one BDPA chapter ... Richmond ... that is actively engaged with elementary school students. They use the First LEGO project to interact with these young people. Won't any of the other 44 BDPA chapters consider implementing this program within their 2010 SITES program?

The decrease in computer science majors is a national problem. It is time that Corporate America take some ownership of these negative trends for Blacks in technology. Corporations need to make stronger efforts to attend BDPA conferences on a regional and national levels. Our foundation would love to create scholarship and internship opportunities that match talented BDPA students with interested corporations. Eli Lilly and Company funds scholarships thru our foundation ... and it is no accident that they were named the 'Best Company for Blacks in Technology'.

"Mentoring and networking opportunities are important tools for retaining minority employees, in addition to training and skills-building to build confidence," Dahlberg said. She also suggested allowing new hires to explore different positions within an organization.
One of the ways the NSF is working to counteract declining enrollments is by providing opportunities for students, and it is partnering with local nonprofit and national organizations, said Cuny. The NSF has bridge programs to transition high school graduates into computer science majors at college, as well as programs to motivate undergraduate students to remain in the field.

The NSF's K-12 programs focus on informal education designed to spark student interest in computing by showing how computers can solve problems through creating and manipulating rather than being used as tools, Cuny added.

It is also working to infuse computer science in middle school and high school curricula, advocate computational thinking, and introduce a new Advanced Placement course for computer science. That effort, though, is being hampered by a shortage of computer science teachers, she said.

"There are few computer science teachers in the country. Many have degrees in other fields, especially business," Cuny said. The NSF has set a goal for 10,000 more computer science teachers by 2015.
Dahlberg participates in an NSF-sponsored program called the STARS (Students & Technology in Academia, Research & Service) Alliance. STARS mentors high-achieving computer science students at 20 colleges and universities in the southeastern United States, and has them talk to high school students, she said.

The program is also attempting to give businesses access to qualified computer science students in schools near them. BETF and BDPA Charlotte have both worked with the STARS Alliance. It is another program that should be aggressively explored by BDPA chapters co-located with the 20 colleges currently in the program.

"The National Science Foundation has many studies and projects to increase number of minorities and women in the field," said the NAACP's Bey. "It's not that there's not something being done…there's just no magic pill."
BDPA needs to be at the forefront of dealing with this issue. BETF is willing to work with any interested chapter to obtain funding that is related to increasing the number of African American students that are encouraged to follow-up on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies and careers.

What say u?


DNLee said...

NSF is great! They do alot to fund not only research but education and outreach programs in all of the sciences. I have personally benefited from NSF funding (in Life Sciences, I am a biologist) and 75% of my PhD education and research has been funded through an NSF grant here or there. The NSF is a great institution and public science agency. Too few people know about this agency and how important public funding (i.e. tax dollars) of science and science education is.

Villager said...

Danielle - Remarkable testimonial for NSF. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I wish I could encourage more people to COMMENT on these blog posts...