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Kean University

Kean Receives $800,000 NSF Award to Increase Diversity in Computing

A photo of the North Avenue Academic Building, which houses computer science

Kean University was recently awarded an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for research aimed at attracting and retaining more diverse students to STEM education and careers, through teaching more inclusive software design.

Kean students studying computer science and information technology will learn to design software accessible to more people, said Professor Patricia Morreale, Ph.D., the principal investigator on the grant who is also chair of the Department of Computer Science and Technology.

As part of their classroom work, students will design software for target users from one of several “personas,” each with a mix of different facets, including learning styles, access to reliable technology, risk tolerance and computer ability.

“This approach is really helping all students be better developers and understand more about the people who will use their software,” Morreale said. The grant co-PI is Dr. Margaret Burnett of Oregon State University.

The goals of the NSF-funded research are both to improve equity and inclusivity in computer science and information technology education, and retain diverse students once they are enrolled. 

“Access to STEM education and courses does not ensure equity,” Morreale wrote in the project overview. “Once recruited, students must be successfully retained in STEM majors. Toward this end, we will address the challenges diverse students enrolled in similar courses face.” 

The three-year grant from NSF was awarded to Kean as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, or HSI. The research project builds on an earlier NSF grant at Kean, which began the work on teaching inclusive software design.

The project is expected to involve about 20 Kean faculty and reach 2,000 students during the three years.

The new research project, entitled HSI Implementation and Evaluation Project: Regular CS x Inclusive Design x HSI Equals Building a Larger CS Workforce, comes as Kean, New Jersey’s urban research university, is working to gain designation as an R2 research institution.

“Addressing the retention of computer science students from diverse backgrounds is vital for a school aiming to become an R2 research institution and for broader societal goals of equity and inclusion in STEM education,” said George Chang, Ph.D., dean of The Dorothy and George Hennings College of Science, Mathematics and Technology, which includes computer science. 

More than 50% of the Kean Department of Computer Science and Technology’s 800 undergraduate students are from groups which are underrepresented in the field, Morreale said. Approximately 26% are Hispanic, 26% are Black, and 20% women.

Using the “Socioeconomic Inclusiveness Magnifier” (SESMag), Kean faculty will further integrate equity and inclusion into regular classroom work. Students will utilize the SESMag personas, such as “Dav,” to work on inclusive software design throughout their four years at Kean. The personas will be used to identify and fix inclusivity bugs, address software bias flaws, and more.

“We’re not going to assume everybody has a full screen monitor. We’re not going to assume everyone knows what all the tabs at the top of the page are for,” Morreale said. “We’re not assuming everyone has the same resources or knowledge.”

Researchers will evaluate the effectiveness, feasibility, sustainability and impact on academic outcomes for students.

“We’re trying to make sure students can see themselves in the computer science space, by talking about different ways people use software,” Morreale added. “The theory is if we teach inclusive software design now, our students will build the inclusive software we need for the future.”