New workshop promotes diversity

By Brian Bevirt
09/26/2014 - 12:00am

The CISL Outreach Services Group organized the first Workshop on Diversity in the Computational Geosciences (DCG) on 23–25 June 2014. This workshop was created to develop and sustain a robust national community dedicated to broadening participation in 21st century geoscience. Following the workshop, participants will work to produce a report summarizing the shared vision, knowledge, and experiences of the participants that helps define the research, curricula, and best practices needed to increase the diversity of the geosciences. This report will then be distributed to relevant NSF Directorates, Programs, and Offices to inform and influence NSF policy. The report will also explain and disseminate best practices to the research community.

Many of the contributors to the Workshop on Diversity in the Computational Geosciences at NCAR. DCG provided a forum and ample time for vigorous discussion and brainstorming.

The DCG workshop brought together 30 diversity leaders from 21 different U.S. research universities and national laboratories. The workshop’s organizing committee was led by  Stephanie A. Barr (CISL Diversity Coordinator at NCAR), and included Dr. Richard D. Loft (CISL Director of Technology Development and Outreach at NCAR), Dr. Shela Aboud (Senior Research Scientist at Stanford University), Dr. Denise Barnes (NSF Section Head for EPSCoR), and Dr. Linda Hayden (Professor of Computer Science at Elizabeth City State University). Presenting keynote addresses were Dr. Diane A. Baxter, Associate Director for Education at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), and Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, Associate Chair of Research in the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department at the University of Florida and head of the Human-Experience Research Lab. A second NSF contributor was Marilyn J. Suiter, a program director in the Education and Human Resources Directorate.

Diane Baxter, the first keynote speaker, tackled a key question on the first day: why connect diversity with computational geosciences? She pointed out that underrepresented groups are increasingly motivated to participate because climate change is disproportionately affecting socioeconomically vulnerable populations that are currently underrepresented in the geosciences. Second, computational science is thought to have a “democratizing” influence by lowering the barriers to access to information and enabling entrepreneurship, for example. In another discussion, workshop participants discussed Warren Washington’s suggestion of forming a Society of Computational Geoscientists with a core purpose of “engaging and empowering all people and communities to thrive through intercultural and interdisciplinary partnerships amid the complex challenges of a changing planet.” The participants distilled this society’s role into two statements: “To bring opportunities” and “To provide a legacy of embetterment.”

In plenary sessions and breakout groups, the participants drew on their personal and professional experiences to illustrate the principle that people having diverse world-views enrich the quality of research in the computational geosciences. For instance, Dr. Gilbert described how computer science students were motivated to develop a workable electronic voting machine. He described the barriers he encountered to funding the project via grant proposals, the technical challenges the project faced, how it ultimately was successful in changing the way people vote in the United States, and how a project with real societal impact motivated students to excel in computer science.

Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, Associate Chair of Research in the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department at the University of Florida and head of the Human-Centered Computing Lab Juan Gilbert’s keynote address provided numerous case studies illustrating how the University of Florida’s Human-Experience Research Lab produced impactful results for its clients and the participating students.

In other breakout sessions at the DCG workshop, participants began identifying barriers to success, remembering the past and looking to the future. Several proposals for tackling the daunting challenge of awakening, developing, motivating, and sustaining the STEM talent of all U.S. citizens from all backgrounds were actively discussed.

Dr. Diane A. Baxter, Associate Director for Education at the San Diego Supercomputer Center Diane Baxter’s keynote presentation offered many insights into motivating new people to pursue careers in the computational geosciences. “People are more likely to invest their time and talent when they have a personal reason to engage and they see that their input is critical to a solution. The challenge and the opportunity for us is to help students see that the real question is not why they should participate, but how they could possibly NOT participate.”