Podcast: The Keys to Diversifying Computer Science Education, With Dr. Juan Gilbert

December 13, 2021

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STEM-related fields are booming in the United States, but they often lack diversity. If the United States wants to remain a leader in these fields, policymakers must take steps to adequately fund state institutions to ensure that all students receive access to STEM programs. Rob and Jackie sat down with Dr. Juan Gilbert, chair of the University of Florida’s Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department, to discuss how the United States has fallen behind in recruiting students in science, technology, engineering, and math and what policymakers, universities, and industries can do diversify their candidate pools.

 

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Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I’m Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. And we’re a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.

Jackie Whisman: And I’m Jackie Whisman. I handle outreach at ITIF, which I’m proud to say is the world’s top ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: And this podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF from the broad economics of innovation to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. Today, we’re going to talk about computer science education and the importance of mentoring the next generation of innovators, particularly innovators who maybe haven’t participated as much in the past. And how do we get them to be a big part of the US innovation system.

Jackie Whisman: Our guest is Dr. Juan Gilbert, who is the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and Chair of the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department at the University of Florida, where he leads the Human Experience Research lab. He has also directed the Institute for African American Mentoring in Computer Sciences, and we are happy to have you here, Dr. Gilbert, welcome.

Juan Gilbert: Thank you. I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jackie Whisman: In your view, how are we doing when it comes to encouraging minorities to pursue STEM related fields?

Juan Gilbert: Well, we’re trying. We haven’t done a very good job forever. If you look at representation of different demographics within the US population, within other disciplines, and then you look at, for example of computer science, I would say there’s severe under representation, demographically speaking, and that doesn’t serve us well as a country. And so we can do a lot more. Do a lot better job, I think.

Rob Atkinson: So, this is an issue that, ever since we’ve been around in 2006, it’s an issue certainly that we’ve been focused on. People have been focused on it for a long time. What do you see as kind of... This is obviously... Any kind of challenge or issue like this there’s going to be multiple, multiple factors and variables, but can you just throw out a few... And what are some of the key barriers that has made this difficult up to now?

Juan Gilbert: Yeah, there are a number of barriers. I’ll give you a few. One, I like to use this phrase. If they see it, they can be it. Lack of role models or representation. It never occurs to many of these students and women and unrepresented students to even pursue this kind of a career because they never saw anyone like them in it. That’s one issue. The other issue is people saying, “You can do this.” Meaning teachers and others encouraging them to do it. The other benefits of pursuing such a career. It’s clear the benefits, for example, if I want to be an NBA player, I know exactly how to do that. I know what I need to do. And I know the benefits of it. It’s clear.

But if I want to be the CEO of a tech firm, ClickIT, there’s no guidance on that. There’s no help on how to do those kind of things. So, those are a few of the barriers, just lack of information about what it takes to be successful. What are the benefits and role models. And then obviously teachers and others saying, “You can do this and we will hope you pursue this career.”

Rob Atkinson: One of the... Yeah, that is certainly what we hear. But, one of the things that is interesting to me is there are some really interesting models around the country. So for example, we did a big report on STEM Ed a few years ago. And one of the folks we brought in through video conference was a thing called the Dallas Science and High School. Science and Math Academy I think, it was a charter high school. It was probably, I’m going to say 80 to 90% Black and Hispanic. They had the highest rate of AP test scores in the top 10% in the country. They were getting most of their kids going in and going to college and getting STEM degrees.

And the reason they did it is because they did exactly what you did. They brought in mentors, they showed these kids, “This is what you can do.” They made them work hard. It was a rigorous program. And when you see that you see High Tech High in San Diego, Microsoft has a model school in the inner city of Philly. So, it’s not one of those things that you can’t do, it seems like we can do it, we’re just not doing it enough. What are your thoughts on that?

Juan Gilbert: I agree, Rob, and it’s important. So, let me give you the context. If I’m a white male in West Virginia, why does this matter to me? Why are all my taxpayer dollars going to help these Hispanic and Black kids somewhere? Well, we live in a global economy and a global society. China has a billion people. We’re 330 million. 1 billion brains versus 330 million brains. Now, the reason we are successful is because of our diversity and thought. They tend to fall in line and follow suit. We deviate many as Americans. We think outside the box. When we can have greater participation in our population from all those that can participate, our brain power exceeds that of that 1 billion, for example, in China or in India is a billion. So it’s important to have these diverse thoughts, these ideas coming from all kinds of places to innovate, to keep us the leader in the global economy.

And that matters. And Rob, I like to use this another saying; He who has the most toys wins. And if you look historically speaking, that has not always been us. And that’s not always a good thing. We need to be a leader. We need to be out front. We need to have the most innovation. And so we need to include as many people as we can to innovate and to build the next big thing. That’s why it’s important. That’s why, if I’m the white, old guy in West Virginia, why this matters to me too. How this will impact me too.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah, absolutely.

Jackie Whisman: And, you’ve been widely recognized for dramatically increasing the number of African Americans pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science. And I’m curious what interventions seem to have been the most promising or the most successful?

Juan Gilbert: Well, number one, when they meet me they say, “Whoa, someone like me.” That’s part one. Part two is I talk to them and their families. I tell them why they should do this. So to give some context around that, many of these students come from underserved populations whereby they didn’t have a significant family income. Okay. So they go to college and they’ll say, “Well, if you graduate, you get a job. And then you help the family and things like that.” And I give them perspective on what their lives could be like if they do pursue these advanced degrees, and how it affects their income and their standard of eliminating things they could do for their family. No one talks to them like that. And when they understand that, and the family understands that they have family support as well. So, it’s about the benefits of delay gratification and pursuing these degrees.

For example, here’s the case I use all the time with these students. I say, “If you get a bachelor’s degree in computer science today, you’re going to get a job. And if you’re really good at what you do, let’s say you start out making about 65,000 a year. Okay. And this is in the south somewhere. And they say, “Oh, that’s really good.” And I said, “Because you’re really good, you know what, in two years, you’re going to get 3% increase, cost of living increase probably each year.”

And I say, “Due to math, where would your salary be?” And they crunch it out and they say, “Okay, if I’m at about 3%, that’s about 6%. I’ll be, if I start off 65, I may be at 70.” And I said, “Do you know, it takes two years to get a master’s degree?” My master’s students are starting out at 80 and 85, and then they start scratching their head and thinking, “Wait a minute, maybe... Maybe it makes more sense for me to go to stay in school and do those two years or whatever.” So, Rob and Jackie, that was the types of conversations you have with them to say, “This is worthwhile doing. This is why you need to be in this area.”

Rob Atkinson: It’s funny, because I got a PhD but... My son has a degree in computer science, and I feel like he’s doing real work in the world. I’m not, I’m only a policy guy. But the reason I got my PhD was my mentor in my master’s program said, “I think you should get a PhD.” And I was like, “Huh, okay. I hadn’t thought about that.” So, even for somebody like me, I grew up middle class and I could see these kinds of things. Even for somebody like me, if you don’t have that, somebody saying, “I think you can do this” as you’re just talking about it. It’s hard. It’s funny. I’m a big NBA fan and I love watching inside the NBA at the half and Charles Barkley is my favorite guy.

And I was watching him last night. And he was saying, he knew from when he was 11 years old, that he wanted to be in the NBA and everybody in his environment was telling him, “You can be in the NBA.” And, in Charles’ case, that was a good decision because the guy was a fantastic basketball player. But it just struck me with what you’re saying. We need people to give messages to 10-year-old kids who may be are living in... Charles, I think, was in a rural, not very well-off community or family, but, they encouraged them to work hard. We need to have that sort of mentorship and telling people early on, “Yeah, you can do this.”

Juan Gilbert: Exactly. And I’m a poster child for this. I was the first in my family to go to college. My dad had an eighth-grade education. He fought in the Korean War. My mom had a high school diploma and my older siblings didn’t even graduate from high school. So, when I went to college... I love science. And I was a chemistry major, Rob. I started out as a chemistry major. And I was taking advanced chemistry freshman year. And one of the teaching assistants, the TAs pulled me aside. He said, “Juan, you’re really good at chemistry. You’re going to do great here. And when you graduate, you’re going to go to Graduate School and then you’ll be able...”

I said, “Well, whoa, wait a minute. Go where?” He said, “Graduate School. That’s what we do in chemistry.” I said, “Wait a minute, I got to go to school again. I thought I went to college to get a job.” So I changed my major to systems analysis or computer science to avoid going to Graduate School. Now, how did that work out? I ended up going, but how did I end up going? So Rob, I ended up getting a scholarship from NCR Corporation in Dayton, Ohio. And with that, I got an internship. And so I was doing well there and it was my junior year in college. And I had this class called Stochastic Systems. I hated, it.

Jackie Whisman: Sounds so fun.

Juan Gilbert: Oh, I couldn’t stand it. The professor though was the Dean, Dr. David Hadas. And I would fall asleep in class and he handed out papers and he had to wake me up to hand them out. And one day he said, “Juan, I want to see you after class.” And I thought, “Oh no, I’m in trouble. I don’t like this class.” He said, “Juan, you know what? I know you don’t like my class. I’ve been watching you since you’ve been here. You know what? I think you’d be a good professor someday.”

Rob Atkinson: Hmm.

Juan Gilbert: It wasn’t until that moment in time that it ever occurred to me, that that was even an option for me. Dr. Hadas saw something in me that I could not realize. And he said, “I think you’d be a good professor someday. And in fact, if you got your PhD, I’d hire you.” Long story short, I ended up getting my PhD. While I was finishing my PhD, he hired me as an instructor back at Miami University in Ohio. So it was full circle. But Rob that’s an example of me... I actually lived this. I had no idea. There was no one telling me that I could do this. And then even when I was in college, I didn’t know. And Dr. Hadas, if it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know what I would be doing, but he saw something that I didn’t.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah, that’s really, really interesting. And again, it’s like everybody faces this issue. Maybe there’s a few small share kids, black or white, rich or poor sort of know that from the beginning, but everybody faces it. But especially, more maybe disadvantaged minorities again, as you say, where you just don’t have that role model, you never see it. You think your expectations that are certain levels. So having somebody who can say, “Wait a minute, you can do this.” It’s really, really important.

Jackie Whisman: Because there’s no shortage of children or young adults who are willing to work hard. But if you’re not kind of giving them the psychological support to pursue things out of the box, that’s really the game changer. For me, I didn’t have anybody that expected me to be good at math. And so I just never was because I never cared to become good at math because everybody around me was like, “Oh, well, it’s okay. You have nice penmanship.”

Juan Gilbert: Yeah. And those kind of things matter. And the impact of them on young people, you just have no idea how impactful it is just to say, “You can do this. You can be this.” And Jackie you’re right. These kids work hard. And Rob, I often say this, I haven’t seen anyone do this study, but I’ll say it here. I think it takes just as much effort, hard work to do the wrong thing as it does to do good things or the right things. People always look at a kid who gets in trouble and gets arrested and living one of these lifestyles that are bad. They look at that and think, “Well, that’s the easy way out.” No, that is very hard work to actually be that bad. And so, I think if you can redirect that energy in the right places, that’s what you want to do.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. The other thing too, when you said about you went to college and got into this. One of the challenges I think we have... I have a colleague of mine whose son was in computer science as my son is. And he applied to... We live in Maryland. He lives with my friend. He applied to University of Maryland for the Computer Science Department. And he was a very good student, but he didn’t get in because University of Maryland, like I think frankly most public universities, because they’re so strapped for money, they want to get out-of-state students because that’s where the money is. And so they have limited slots for the in-state students because they don’t pay very much.

So in this case, it didn’t really matter because the guy was middle class and lives in Bethesda, Maryland and or wherever. And his kid went out-of-state and got a computer science degree. But, wait a minute, what if you’re not middle class and you can’t get into that state school because they have so many foreign students or out-of-state students because they’re paying almost double. And that’s, I mean, I just see as a core issue that states have got to step up to the plate here and really increase funding for these STEM programs so that they can take more kids who are paying in-state tuition.

Juan Gilbert: I could-

Rob Atkinson: Do you see that as well?

Juan Gilbert: I couldn’t agree with you more. That is a big debate. And I think as citizens, we could put pressure on the legislatures to say, “Look, you got to serve the state. This institution needs to serve the state constituents.” And there’s a way to do that. And we need to speak up about that. But I would encourage students. If you are not admitted into that state institution, you don’t have to walk away. Here’s another path. You could go to a community college for a year or two and then transfer directly back in to the institution. That’s another pathway that again... Right, that’s not explained. People don’t understand that. And the transfers actually have a higher rate of getting in. If you go to the... Find me a state institution that does not have a partner or a consortium of community colleges in that state that they transfer into that doesn’t exist? Everybody has that. So there’s ways to get in if you really aspire to be at that place.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. California’s very good at that. It’s one place state I know where, if you don’t get into the UC Berkeley or UC Santa Barbara, if you go to a very good two year college, right. Two year college, which are good, you have a much better chance now getting in and finishing your degree at one of the flagship state universities there.

Juan Gilbert: Exactly. And you bring those credits with you.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah.

Juan Gilbert: So that’s, to me, that’s the alternative. But did you get at your original point? Yes. This isn’t issued. State in institutions are looking at their budgets and saying, we need more out-of-state tuition. And it’s a balancing act because you can’t have... But it’s a finite number of students you can have. So what percent or in-state versus out-of-state. So yeah, that is an ongoing debate in an ongoing issue.

Rob Atkinson: I went to talk to my friend and colleague Ed Lazowska. And had a computer science.

Juan Gilbert: I know Ed very well.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. Wonderful guy. Had a CS at University of Washington, very strong program. And I asked him, Ed, I said, “Look, Ed, how much could you expand your program, your CS program with in-state students without diminishing the quality of students? You don’t want to take poor students.” And he said, “We could double it.” I said, “Why don’t you double it?” He said, “The state doesn’t give us enough money. We can’t hire faculty.” And in their case, luckily Microsoft stepped up to the plate and did a thing where they... If the state put in money, Microsoft... So they did increase their enrollments, but not every state has a Microsoft.

Juan Gilbert: Right. Yeah. I’m very familiar with that program and Ed and everything. And you’re absolutely right. They were fortunate because Microsoft’s in their backyard. So that did help them out. And yeah, most places will say the same thing. Here at the University of Florida, again, I’m Chair of the Computer Science Department. As of this year, we are the largest degree program at the University of Florida.

Rob Atkinson: Oh, that’s great.

Juan Gilbert: I have over 3000 undergraduates.

Rob Atkinson: Wow.

Juan Gilbert: Over 515 master students and 170 PhD students. We are now the largest program and the curve is still growing. So there is demand for this. And I would say, Ed is right on. There’s talent in the state, there’s talent available, and we need to go to cultivate that talent.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. That’s impressive.

Jackie Whisman: What are some of the main things the federal government should be doing to encourage this?

Juan Gilbert: Well, they need to invest in these institutions. As you mentioned earlier, minority serving institutions, they need to invest not only federal, but state governments and the state institutions to provide this access. Now there is another caveat, Rob, to get this done. You mentioned how Microsoft chipped in. So there’s industries that do help with this. So certain companies will go to the state legislature and say, “Look, I’m in your state and I need employees. Your institutions need to produce more or we may have to move. And that has provided leverage in some states as well to help increase in areas of STEM and particularly in computer science. Computer science is the only area that I’m aware of that has a negative talent deficit. Meaning there are more jobs available than a number of graduates to fill those.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. That reminds me of a case, I don’t know, maybe a decade ago in Texas where the computer company, a chip company, Texas Instruments, it was headquartered, I believe, in Dallas. And they were considering a location of a very important facility that Singapore was bidding for it and Israel’s bidding for it. And they went to the state and they said, “Look, everybody around the world wants us to put it. We’ll put it here. But what we need is we need you to expand your computer engineering and electrical engineering programs at University of Texas. Because that is what we rely on.” So the state did that and to me, that’s one of those beautiful, win-wins where the state benefits, the Texas Instruments benefits, the country benefits. So, I think you’ve... That’s a really interesting point that legislators are realizing that this is not just about educating people, which is critical, but it’s really also about economic development.

Juan Gilbert: Absolutely. And I’m very familiar with TI as well. They recruit heavily out of University of Florida. Lot of Florida graduates work there. So yeah, they did make a move and say, “Look, Texas A&M, UT Austin, Texas state...” They just went down the list, said, “Look, you guys, you got to support these places. We need more graduates.”

Rob Atkinson: Yep.

Juan Gilbert: Industry has a role to play. And I think that’s important for industry to talk to the legislators and say, “Look, you have to step up.”

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. Maybe just to close, we were talking earlier, but today we’re doing that. I think it’s November 17th and yesterday The House just passed what’s called the Build Back Better Bill. This is a big investment package. And now it’s over to the Senate and there’s a lot in there. But one of the... There are a couple provisions that I think are especially important and interesting and intriguing. One of them is a multi-billion-dollar initiative to fund historically Black universities, Hispanic serving, I think an Indian serving, but not just to fund them, but to fund them around their technology and research infrastructure. And to really help them get world class instrumentation and technology and labs and all that and to support research there.

I think that’s critical because when the kids are there, when the students are there, they can then see that their faculty are working on this. It’s easier for them to get maybe fellowships or research assistantships. So that to me is a really, really cool initiative. And if it all goes through, I think we could see a significant change in upgrading, if you will, of these institutions over the next five years.

Juan Gilbert: Rob, you’re absolutely right. And again, I want to make this point again, to be clear, this benefits all of us. We live global economy. The next big thing that’s going to happen, needs to come out of our country. We need to be the innovators, the leaders. He who has the most toys wins. We need to be, he. We need to be the owner of the most toys.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah.

Juan Gilbert: So I think it’s very critical that we develop our talent and we compete in the global economy with our innovation. And that requires us to have as many people as possible contributing. And that is part of that infrastructure building. Infrastructure in these places and enabling these individuals to contribute to this global economy.

Rob Atkinson: Jackie will remember this, but a number of years ago, we take Hill staffers around various places in the country. And we visited Pittsburgh and we were in a lab at Carnegie Mellon in the computer science program. And it was a facial recognition technology lab. They were doing work for the army. And so we’re in the lab talking to the head of the lab, really unbelievably cool technology. And I’m looking around, I’m thinking, I don’t think I see any American citizens here. You can just tell person looking like they’re from India. So I asked... I walk up to this woman who looks like she’s American.

And I start talking to her and she’s Romanian. So I ask the director of the lab. I say, “How many of your students here, your PhD students, are Americans with a citizenship? He said. “Zero.” And at one level, there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, we want to welcome the best and the brightest to the US, but how long can we do that? These people might go back to their countries. And so we’ve got to be investing in our own people as well. And that’s why I think some of these programs that we’re talking about in the things you’re working on are so important.

Juan Gilbert: Absolutely. It matters. And that’s my concern is that, if these students, in particular the Chinese students who China’s built up their infrastructure and a lot of these students are going back home. So they come here, they get trained and they go back home and now they take those ideas and those things back. This has been a serious issue for many years in engineering, in general, but all areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. So at the University of Florida, one of the things in our college of engineering, we have an Industry Advisory Board, and this is brought to our attention. We can’t have that. So, I’m happy to say, like in my department, the majority of our PhD students are domestic. We’re a majority domestic PhD program which is very rare.

We may be one of two in the country or three, but we made an effort to do that in response to our industry leadership saying, “Look, you guys got to step it up.” And a lot of this deals with federal contracts and things, being able to work on those, they require citizenship in a lot of these places, and the workforce again is negative. They can’t find people. So Rob, you’re absolutely right. We need to not only invest in these institutions, but recruit domestically as well. And again, it’s nothing against our international peers. We appreciate having them. And in fact, many of them come and stay. And we love that. We like to have that. I love to see that. I have alumni who have come from other countries, come here, they get their degree. They stayed and their kids are first generation Americans. And they’re just as proud as I am. And so I think those are good stories, but at the same time, we do need to pay attention to our domestic students.

Rob Atkinson: Absolutely. Well, Juan, we could really go on over a long time, because there’s so much really to focus on here. There’s so many really interesting aspects of this, but unfortunately we have to stop for this, but I really appreciate you being here with us a really great conversation.

Juan Gilbert: Thank you for having me and thank you for bring in this attention to this. And I encourage others. Feel free to reach out to me if they need advice on how to do this and what we’re doing, it’s important. And again, I say it for the third time, this impacts us all.

Rob Atkinson: Yep, absolutely.

Jackie Whisman: And that’s it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to read us and subscribe. Feel free to email, show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website itif.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn @itifdc.

Rob Atkinson: And we have more episodes and great guests lined up. New episodes will drop every other Monday. So we hope you’ll continue to tune in.

Jackie Whisman: Talk to you soon.

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Podcast: The Keys to Diversifying Computer Science Education, With Dr. Juan Gilbert