Participants in the SoNIC workshop and members of the Cornell community stand in front of Gates Hall.

Courtesy of Hakim Weatherspoon

Participants in the SoNIC workshop and members of the Cornell community stand in front of Gates Hall.

June 25, 2018

Faculty Encourage Minority Students to Pursue PhDs in Computer Science

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Computer science faculty taught students from around the nation in a workshop from June 18 – 22 aiming to boost the number of underrepresented minorities earning a Ph.D. in the field.

The SOftware defined Network InterfaCe workshop was led by Prof. Hakim Weatherspoon, computer science, who created the workshop eight years ago in collaboration with Howard University’s computer science department.

Every year since June 2011, the workshop has hosted up to 25 undergraduate students in an effort to “address the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing and obtaining a Ph.D. in Computer Science,” Weatherspoon said in an email to The Sun. The workshop exposes these students to research possibilities, encouraging them to pursue graduate degrees and careers in computer science.

“The students learn what it means to pursue a Ph.D., and that obtaining a Ph.D. can help them positively impact society,” Weatherspoon said. “As a faculty, it is fun to make a difference and to know that we are making a difference. As the creator and organizer, it is exciting to be part of 25 wonderful lives for a week and watch what they do afterwards.”

According to Cornell’s department of computer science, in the 2012 – 2013 academic year, only 22 African Americans, 20 Hispanics and 3 Native Americans received a Ph.D. in the field, out of 1,432 total PhDs earned in computer science in the United States.

“We need to attract a more diverse set of workers to the field of computer science generally, and to CS research in particular,” said Prof. Fred Schneider, computer science. “Events like SoNIC are an important mechanism for helping to achieve that goal.”

The workshop is open to undergraduate students in computer science, electrical and computer engineering, physics or math. The costs of the workshop, including travel, lodging and meals, are fully covered. Funding is provided by the National Science Foundation, Cornell faculty in Computing and Information Science, the College of Engineering and other industry partners.

At the workshop, faculty participants give presentations on their paths to a Ph.D. and their research, which “greatly impacts and inspires the student participants,” Weatherspoon said.

The workshop also provides students with the opportunity to learn firsthand from the professors and get involved in their research. Weatherspoon said this gives them a “full 360 degree view” of what it means to pursue, obtain and impact society with a Ph.D.

Throughout the week-long workshop, students learn all about cloud computing — the use of a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store and process data. They also have the opportunity to conduct cloud and network research with a Cornell faculty member, who acts as their research mentor.

Prof. Tonya L. Smith-Jackson, industrial and systems engineering, North Carolina A&T State University, was invited by Weatherspoon to meet with workshop participants and to share information about both the NSF and her own journey in academia.

“Not only do [participants] learn about cloud and networking, but they also learn that these skills will empower them to make a difference in a world they so strongly wish to change,” Smith-Jackson said. “I observed an excited atmosphere around intellectual activities rather than the way-too-prevalent full learning environments that fail to connect STEM concepts to students’ lives and passions.”

Prof. Robbert van Renesse, computer science, said he gives a talk at the SoNIC Workshop each year.

“I usually pick some currently hot computer science topic and do a presentation about that topic,” van Renesse said. “This year I talked about how Bitcoin works. I have enormously enjoyed these presentations. The students are very interested, ask lots of good questions and make lots of good comments.”

Prof. Greg Morrisett, dean of computer and information sciences, said he is a “big fan” of SoNIC and all the work that Weatherspoon and others have done to field the event.

At the end of the SoNIC Workshop, students give a short presentation or written report on their work. They also provide a feedback survey for how the workshop can be improved for future summers.

According to an August 2014 survey of past workshop participants, 93 percent of respondents stated that the SoNIC workshop directly influenced their involvement in computer science. Eighty-seven percent of respondents stated that they are currently or intend to pursue a graduate degree.

If even a fraction of past SoNIC participants receive a Ph.D., it would significant increase diversity statistics within the field, Weatherspoon said.

“I urged the students to keep moving forward, to get STEM doctoral degrees and to come into academia,” Smith-Jackson said. “We need diverse faculty in STEM, especially women and underrepresented minorities. There is a real national crisis and programs like SoNIC are making a difference for Cornell and the nation.”