Building accessible pathways into CS at Harvard for students with minimal prior technical experience, beyond the current introductory courses.
Last year, our report found that while there were no significant differences between when male and non-male undergraduates were first exposed to CS, URM undergraduates were significantly less likely to be exposed to CS before high school compared to non-URM undergraduates. This year, we also found similar trends but also with BGLTQ+ students and their non-BGLTQ+ counterparts. These kinds of discrepancies in technical background can have an enormous influence on student experiences in the field, thereby motivating the need for a variety of accessible pathways into CS at Harvard. The addition of CS32 in Fall 2021 as an alternative to CS50 is an example of one such initiative.
Demystifying undergraduate research opportunities, graduate CS courses, and the graduate school application process early on for CS concentrators.
Last year, we found that non-male CS concentrators were significantly more likely to not have considered applying to graduate studies in CS compared to male CS concentrators, and FGLI CS concentrators were similarly more likely to not have considered applying to graduate studies compared to non-FGLI CS concentrators. This year, we found that SEAS students were significantly more likely to feel as if they did not have sufficient resources to apply compared to non-SEAS students. These discrepancies can be mitigated by increasing students’ exposure to graduate studies, graduate courses, and research opportunities from the early stages of their CS academic journeys. During the 2021-22 academic year, the CS department hosted a number of workshops focusing on these topics, and we recommend the continuations of these initiatives.
1. Invest in supporting and encouraging the transition between introductory courses and undergraduate-level / graduate-level courses for students from marginalized communities.
Just like last year, our report found that significant gender and racial gaps still remain in student enrollment for higher-level undergraduate and graduate CS courses. Given these discrepancies and the importance of representation within the field of CS, we suggest a number of ways the CS department could better support the transition from introductory CS courses to higher-level CS courses for CS-interested students.
Expand the Alex Patel FellowshipWe recommend an expansion of the Alex Patel Fellowship program, such that Patel Fellow support can be provided to higher-level CS courses that often serve as gateways into more advanced CS topics. This expansion could specifically target CS courses where students from underrepresented backgrounds reported feeling less confident in their knowledge of the course topics, such as economics/computation (ex: CS 136: Economics and Computation) and artificial intelligence (ex: CS181: Machine Learning).
Create communities for students in higher-level coursesMany students with underrepresented identities may be hesitant to take higher-level CS courses because they might not know anyone else in the course. To better promote community for students in higher-level courses, we recommend that the CS department expands initiatives such as “CS Nights” to coordinate paid community-building dinners or problem set spaces for both undergraduate-level and graduate-level courses. Such events should be coordinated with course staff and faculty for upper-level courses.
Provide students more information and guidance about course opportunitiesIn order to facilitate the transition between introductory courses and undergraduate-level / graduate-level courses, we recommend that professors (especially those teaching introductory or undergraduate-level classes) spend some time during the last class of the semester going over course opportunities for the following semester. In addition, we recommend some sort of course navigation event to help guide students, especially with the recent changes to and perhaps removal of shopping week. During this event, we recommend advertising courses that have historically had lower representation of marginalized students.
2. Employ best practices for inclusive participation in CS courses, particularly within lectures.
Last year’s report found that non-male CS concentrators were significantly less likely to feel comfortable asking questions during lectures compared to their male counterparts. Although we did not ask this question in particular in this year’s survey, we still noticed an overall trend that marginalized groups had a harder time approaching professors for resources and building community within classes. This discrepancy presents serious implications regarding student learning potential and outcomes within the CS department, especially given that the majority CS courses at Harvard are lecture-based.
Invest in and expand inclusive teaching trainingsCarrying on from last year’s recommendations, we continue to recommend that faculty are regularly trained and provided with best practices for active learning and student engagement.
Mandating TF training for all coursesIn order to promote student comfort in the classroom, we also recommend the continued development of inclusive teaching training for CS teaching staff. These trainings were piloted in a small subset of CS courses in the 2020-21 academic year, and we recommend their continued development and expansion towards becoming mandatory for all CS teaching staff.
3. Prioritize representation among the student teaching staff for CS courses during the hiring process, especially for foundational courses.
Our report found that a significantly larger proportion of non-male respondents disagree to some extent that the aspects of their identity that are important to them are adequately represented among the teaching staff in their primary concentration department. Although this discrepancy is smaller than in last year’s survey, representation among the teaching staff still plays a crucial role in encouraging (or discouraging) students from becoming involved in the CS department, which is why we implore the department to continue prioritizing the recruitment and hiring of candidates with historically underrepresented gender, racial, and sexual identities to course teaching staff.
Report and track representationWe suggest conducting a thorough examination of the current makeup of CS teaching staff members, as well as an evaluation of the current diversity and inclusion hiring initiatives in place.
Recruit diverse candidatesWe recommend that the CS department further invest in informational panels for prospective student teaching staff for CS courses, where former student teaching fellows may share their experiences and encourage other students (particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds) to apply.
Implement hiring best-practicesThe hiring of CS teaching staff is not standardized; individual CS courses often have separate application processes and deadlines. We recommend that the CS department creates and maintains one centralized resource to compile and communicate the teaching staff recruitment processes for all CS courses. This resource should clearly communicate the job expectations and paid salary of student teaching staff positions. Additionally, some CS courses never place an open hiring call, where faculty instead only invite a small subset of students to join their teaching staff. While this system may be more appropriate for smaller courses, we believe that only hiring through private invitations severely limits the pool of eligible candidates and is antithetical to creating a diverse and representative teaching staff. Therefore, we recommend that the CS department mandates that all CS courses with more than one hundred students enrolled must place an open hiring call for teaching staff.
4. Create more accessible opportunities for students to build closer relationships with CS faculty and improve current advising relationships between students and CS faculty.
Our report found that URM students were less likely to feel comfortable asking about concentration advice, research opportunities, career opportunities, or for a letter of recommendation from at least one faculty member in their concentration department compared to non-URM students. Our report also found that first-year (prospective) and sophomore concentrators felt especially uncomfortable approaching faculty members to inquire about career opportunities. These observations illustrate the need to improve relationships between underrepresented students, as well as first-year (prospective) and sophomore concentrators, and CS faculty.
Improve first-year advisingCurrently, first-year prospective CS concentrators are primarily acquainted with CS faculty through their first-year advisor, given the limited accessibility to CS faculty within larger introductory courses. We suggest that this advising program can be further improved by matching first-year prospective CS concentrators with advisors who share common interests in specific subfields of CS, such as networks, systems, artificial intelligence, etc. The CS department has also already structured first-year advising such that non-male CS-interested first-year students are assigned to first-year advisors within the CS department; our findings support the continuation of this initiative, and we recommend expanding this program to include students who identify as an underrepresented racial minority, as BGLTQ+, or as FGLI. Lastly, we suggest that the CS first-year advising program (and CS advising more broadly) should require advisors to meet with their advisees at least once per semester to discuss topics outside of course selection, such as advisees’ academic interests or pre-professional goals.
Facilitate informal connections with facultyTo build undergraduate relationships with the CS faculty, we recommend that the CS department host more personal, conversational events (like Classroom to Table) where CS students can interact with CS faculty in a low-pressure environment.
More informative bios during sophomore concentration advisor matching processIn the current sophomore concentration advisor matching process, students are allowed to specify which professors, if any, they might be particularly interested in having as an advisor. However, many students who may not yet have had interactions with professors or who may have just joined the CS department lack the knowledge to make an informed decision. We recommend that a list of bios of each advisor be given to students during the matching process. In particular, we hope, if the advisor is comfortable with sharing, that this bio includes non-academic interests, as well as which marginalized group(s) within CS that advisor belongs to. Students from marginalized communities may feel more comfortable approaching a professor who shares similar interests as them and who comes from similar backgrounds.
5. Continue and expand support for undergraduate pre-professional opportunities, such as funding for participation in conferences like Grace Hopper and Tapia.
Our report found that there continues to be discrepancies with respect to access to direct connections or referrals between FGLI CS concentrators and non-FGLI CS concentrators. Additionally, our findings suggest that Harvard-facilitated career resources, such as professional networks, alumni networks, and The Harvard Office of Career Services, proved to be more equally accessible to CS concentrators from marginalized communities. As such, we recommend that the CS department continue to invest in current initiatives aimed towards supporting undergraduate pre-professional development.
Fund and encourage undergraduate participation in CS conferencesOne current initiative that has proved promising includes the department-led selection of CS concentrators to attend conferences such as Grace Hopper and Tapia with the goal of ensuring that every CS concentrator – and particularly concentrators from underrepresented backgrounds – can attend at least one conference. By further promoting and expanding these resources to reach more undergraduate students, the CS department can better combat existing inequalities surrounding access to professional connections, referrals, guidance, and mentorship. Additionally, now that the conferences are in-person instead of virtual, we recommend that professors advertise these conferences to students and allow for conference-specific extensions (since students will need to miss some school) in order to encourage students, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, to attend.
Connecting underrepresented students in tech to employersCurrently, some CS clubs host events with corporate sponsors, where students are able to engage with potential employers either through an informational session or an educational workshop. In order to equalize access to tech employment opportunities, we recommend that SEAS sponsors some of these events with tech employers, in particular those who have shown an interest in recruiting students from underrepresented groups.
6. Support computer science, technology, and engineering clubs in efforts to make their student organizations more diverse.
Our report found that there is a significantly lower percentage of URM, FGLI, and BGLTQ+ students who are involved in clubs related to computer science, engineering, and technology compared to their respective counterparts. Given that clubs are a crucial way for students to pick up skills outside of class or to build community among fellow concentrators, we emphasize the need for initiatives that will help students from underrepresented communities learn more about these club opportunities.
CS/SEAS-specific Club FairPrior to the pandemic, the CS and SEAS department hosted CS-specific and/or SEAS-specific club fairs that occurred after the Harvard Club Fair in the fall. Since the Harvard Club Fair is relatively early on in the semester and can be challenging to navigate, we recommend bringing these CS and SEAS-specific fairs back to help students find clubs they may be interested in in a less overwhelming setting.
Train and encourage first-year advisors to connect students with CS/SEAS club leaders on campusWe also recommend that each first-year advisor has a list of CS/SEAS clubs, as well as having a student contact for each club on the list. Especially for students coming from an underrepresented background who are just breaking into CS, it can be very helpful to have a list of clubs to look through, as well as to have an upperclassman student who is willing and able to provide a student perspective on the different CS/SEAS clubs on campus.
7. Invest in building community among students from marginalized groups, particularly through department-led initiatives.
Our report found that significantly more FGLI students disagreed to some extent that their primary department is emotionally supportive compared to non-FGLI students, with similar discrepancies existing for BGLTQ+ and non-BGLTQ+ students. While student groups such as WiCS have led community building efforts among CS-interested students from underrepresented backgrounds, we call on the CS department to further support and spearhead these initiatives. These programs could be brainstormed and developed between WiCS and the CS department; however, we assert that it is the responsibility of the CS department to ultimately implement this programming and to actively forward their institutional commitment to belonging and inclusivity.
We would like to thank Adam Hesterberg, Alexis Stokes, Amber Meyers, Beth Musser, Christina Zaldaña, and Stephen Chong for their guidance through the development of this report. We would also like to thank the WiCS community, especially the Advocacy Council, alongside all of the Harvard College student organizations that work tirelessly to promote equity and inclusion on campus and beyond.