Posted: September 11, 2006
Lisa Ballesteros, associate professor of computer science, attended the Google Faculty Summit in Mountain View, California, this summer with about 100 other academics from across North America.
The two-day summit, which ran July 27-28, consisted of technical talks about current research at Google and future directions for computing research. There were also discussions about the ways in which Google and academic institutions can work together to increase enrollment diversity in computer science and other technical majors.
Although the number of technical jobs is increasing nationally, computer science departments across American institutions have seen a drop in enrollments of more than 60 percent since 2000, according to the Computing Research Association. Furthermore, women and minorities have been grossly underrepresented nationally in computer science and engineering, and enrollment by women has dropped more than 90 percent since its peak in the early 1980s.
At Mount Holyoke, students in the computer science department reflect the diversity of the student body, according to Ballesteros. Roughly 10 students graduate with computing degrees each year. Last year computer science had 23 majors/minors. This year there are 13 majors/minors, with 80 students enrolled in computer science courses.
Recommendations for increasing diversity and enrollments at the Google sessions included increasing mentoring opportunities, diversifying the curriculum to highlight interdisciplinary work, and involving students in research as soon as possible--all ideas that are being implemented at Mount Holyoke.
"Studying computer science in a liberal arts environment not only increases critical thinking skills, but it also facilitates conversations across disciplines about the possibilities for and the impact and limitations of technology on society," Ballesteros observed. "The strong academic foundation we provide is only the first step in ensuring that underrepresented groups are successful as computer scientists. It is also integral that they begin their study of computer science in a supportive environment with positive role models. The small class sizes and student-to-faculty ratio at Mount Holyoke helps significantly in ensuring that each student is mentored and receives all of the support that she needs as a beginning computer scientist."
Furthermore, according to Ballesteros, the computer science department encourages the building of community and social networks by supporting a variety of group activities, including an active Computer Science Club, departmental gatherings, and talks by visiting speakers.
In addition, students often use independent research to pursue a variety of interesting, often interdisciplinary topics involving computer science, including medical image analysis, virtual reality, bioinformatics, and human language technologies.
Ballesteros also met up with Natasha Mohanty '03 at the conference. Mohanty is currently working at Google as a software engineer.