National Science Foundation Awards $1.8 Million Grant to Cal Poly and Five California State University Campuses

Grant M. Brown Engineering Building, college of engineering.
Grant M. Brown Engineering Building, college of engineering. Photo by Joe Johnston/University Photographer/Cal Poly 3-30-21

Cal Poly receives $500,000 to develop a culturally responsive computing curriculum that targets and helps retain underrepresented Hispanic or Latino computer science students

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $1.8 million grant to Cal Poly and five other California State University (CSU) campuses to help transform the early curriculum experience of historically marginalized students studying computer science with the goal of retaining higher numbers of these students. The other campuses include CSU Dominguez Hills, CSU Fullerton, CSU Los Angeles, San Francisco State University and the California Polytechnic State University, Pomona. These universities have identified that a larger percent of underrepresented minority students at CSUs drop out of their computing majors than non-underrepresented minority computing students.

Because the largest percentage of underrepresented minority students drop out of their computer science major in the first two years, the goal is for professors to show students through their initial coursework how the study of computer science can influence and impact the communities they are from.

With the $1.8 million grant for culturally responsive computing curriculum, which includes $500,000 for Cal Poly leading the project, each partner school will incorporate inclusive science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, pedagogy into early computing courses, with faculty training to support community-centered projects in the coursework. Project organizers will evaluate the new curriculum through peer review and focus on how it affects the retention rate of Hispanic and Latino students.

“By implementing changes in the early computing curriculum, students will gain a better understanding of how to apply computing to positively impact their communities with the tools they learn in their courses,” said Dr. Zoë Wood, a Cal Poly computer science professor and the program’s principal investigator.  “Our hope is that by showing how computing skills can be applied to a wide variety of applications — for example, helping local nonprofits with their computing needs — students will perceive computing as a discipline that offers opportunities for achieving communal goals.”

According to the proposal, the new curriculum should help “transform early student experience in computing with the integration of socially responsible computing curriculum”.

“This grant focuses on improving the retention rate among Latinx students in computing by introducing curricular activities that increase their sense of belonging in early computer science courses,” said Dr. Paul Salvador Inventado, an assistant professor of engineering and computer science at CSU Fullerton. “Students will engage in projects and assignments that address community needs, which aligns their strong communal goal orientations with their academic experience.”

The project team aims to establish “curriculum and pedagogical changes integrated throughout the first two computing courses” to address students’ community needs and employ project-based learning.

“Students, through the culturally responsive curriculum, will work on a set of problems related to their community,” said Professor Mohsen Beheshti, CSU Dominguez Hills computer science chair. “They will understand how the field of computing can more effectively solve problems their community faces every day and how they can make a difference in their community with their degree.”

Co-principal investigator Ayaan Kazerouni, an assistant professor of computer science and software engineering at Cal Poly, is implementing an early rollout of the curriculum at the San Luis Obispo campus this fall.