Building an Inclusive Departmental Community {Paper Summary}

Posted December 16, 2014 by Emily Dolson in Review / 0 Comments

I recently came across a cool paper by Newhall et al (2014) summarizing the (highly successful) efforts of the Swarthmore College Computer Science department to build an inclusive departmental community. Full disclosure: I attended Swarthmore for undergrad, majored in CS, took classes from all of the authors on this paper, worked as a student mentor, and was pulled into the field of computer science as a direct result of the efforts described in this paper. I am not remotely objective. But that’s what the data in the paper are for.

At the crux of the Swarthmore CS department’s plan was the student mentor program. Student mentors (colloquially referred to as ninjas) are students selected to provide academic support to students in introductory CS classes. They run multiple evening help sessions each week for their assigned class, ensuring that students in the class always have somewhere to turn if they’re stuck. More informally, these help sessions provide an opportunity for younger students to get to know other CS students, ask questions about the department, and get advice about what classes to take. Additionally, student mentors facilitated the introduction of a partially flipped classroom approach in the classes to which they were assigned. These classes were taught in labs where every student is at a computer, with a heavy emphasis on in-class exercises and coding along with professor demonstrations. Student mentors were present in class to assist students when unexpected errors arose. This allowed the professors to devote their attention to the class as a whole while the mentors ensured that no one was left behind. A diverse and gender-balanced group of mentors were selected, ensuring that students would see people like them represented in respected positions in the department.

On the flip side, this program is incredibly valuable for the mentors themselves. Lack of confidence is known to be a major barrier to women and minorities entering computer science. By offering student mentor positions to students, the department is placing actual confidence in them. As part of the effort to get a diverse group of mentors, positions are often offered to promising students who were not originally thinking of majoring in CS, gently letting them know that they are welcome. Newhall et. al provide a variety of qualitative evidence (in the form of quotes from students) suggesting that this often had the effect of pulling students into the department. For example:

“I decided to major in CS partially as a result of student mentoring. The confidence shown in me by recommending me as a student mentor made me think that I was smart enough to do computer science, and that kept me going when the course work got difficult.”

In essence, the department helps build students’ confidence by placing confidence in them. They created an inclusive atmosphere by reaching out to students from traditionally excluded groups and explicitly including them. Moreover, the fact that student mentors are paid and receive weekly training on pedagogical methods ensures that everyone takes these positions seriously. Through these measures, Swarthmore’s CS department was able to substantially increase the percentage of female majors (from 17% to 28%) when the national average has remained steady at around 12%.

All in all, this program was highly effective at Swarthmore and I’d definitely recommend trying it out!

Emily Dolson

I'm a doctoral student in the Ofria Lab at Michigan State University, the BEACON Center for Evolution in Action, and the departments of Computer Science and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, & Behavior. My interests include studying eco-evolutionary dynamics via digital evolution and using evolutionary computation techniques to interpret time series data. I also have a cross-cutting interest in diversity in both biological and computational systems. In my spare time, I enjoy playing board games and the tin whistle.

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