Diversity initiatives help change the face of Berkeley computer science

Students share project demos during CS KickStart, a free, week-long program for incoming freshman, female-identifying and non-binary students interested in computer science. CS Kickstart is just one of a series of programs launched by EECS to boost diversity in computer science fields. (Photo by Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering)

As a high school student, Lupe Paniagua didn’t think computer science was for her. Coding classes were mostly taken by male students, many with prior experience in the subject, which she found intimidating.

“Anytime someone mentioned computer science, I compared myself to them and I never quite felt like I had the ability to do what they were doing,” Paniagua said. “All my misconceptions of computer science made me believe that the field wasn’t meant for me.”

But an online programming course she took her senior year sparked Paniagua’s passion for code. It also inspired her, as an incoming UC Berkeley student, to participate in CS Kickstart, a one-week course that brings together students with little or no background in computer science to meet each other and learn the basics of the field.

“The program was a life-changing experience for me,” says Paniagua, who now plans to major in computer science, cognitive science or both. “Not only did it expose me to various aspects of computer science and give me areas to explore, but it inspired, motivated and encouraged me as a woman in this world of technology to pursue things that stigma kept away from me. It truly showed me that I can thrive in this field as a first-generation, low-income woman.”

Berkeley’s population of burgeoning computer scientists has recently grown a lot more diverse, thanks in part to a series of programs — like CS Kickstart and its sister programs, CS Scholars and CS Mentors — that were launched to support women and underrepresented minorities in computer science.

Over the past two years, the number of women graduating with degrees in computer science and in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) majors has increased by 47%, and the number of students from underrepresented minority backgrounds following same path has increased by 43%, reports Berkeley’s EECS department, which runs the programs.  

Improvements in diversity are also evident at the graduate level: Between fall 2011 and fall 2018, the percentage of women in EECS graduate programs jumped from 14.5% to 22.5% and the number of underrepresented minority students grew from 27 to 41.

The EECS department hopes to build upon this trend with the help of a $2 million gift from the Hopper-Dean Foundation to support initiatives targeted at women and underrepresented minority students at all points in their career — including in middle and high school, at community college, as Berkeley undergraduates and as first-year Berkeley graduate students.

The new funds build upon the foundation’s gift in 2016 of $1 million, which included support of diversity programs being piloted by the department.

Jeff Bokor, chair of the EECS department, and John Canny, chair of the Computer Science Division, anticipate that the department’s efforts to increase diversity in computer science will benefit thousands of middle school and high school students nationwide, as well as undergraduate and graduate students at Berkeley.

“UC Berkeley EECS is by far the largest supplier of top-tier talent to the U.S. (information technology) industry,” Canny says. “Last year, we granted more than 1,280 undergraduate degrees across electrical engineering, computer science and data science majors. We expect that the strides we make in diversity, equity and inclusion will reverberate beyond the department and the college and gradually influence industry.”

Read more about EECS diversity initiatives at the EECS website