Christine Alvarado, a teaching professor of computer science and engineering, has been named a Distinguished Member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world’s largest association of computing professionals. Alvarado is being honored for her outstanding educational contributions to computing and is one of only 49 Distinguished Members named in 2018.
In particular, Alvarado was recognized for her efforts to increase diversity within the computer science field by supporting groups underrepresented in computer science, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and indigenous peoples.
“With teaching, it became so much my passion that it spread into my scholarship as well. I wanted to spend all my time studying how to make education better,” said Alvarado.
In 2014, Alvarado started a groundbreaking program called the Early Research Scholars Program (ERSP) to encourage and support research among early-career computer science undergraduates at UC San Diego. The program brings second-year students “who are less experienced and maybe more unsure about getting involved in research,” she said, into academic-year-long apprenticeships with CSE faculty mentors to design and complete independent research projects.
The competitive program has grown over the past five years, with about 150 students applying each year for 40 positions. “What we’re looking for is a combination of motivation — people who really want to be in the program and can articulate why they want to be in the program,” Alvarado explained, “as well as an understanding of diversity issues in computer science and what challenges students from underrepresented groups face, and how the applicant’s participation will help create a more inclusive community in computer science.”
One of the challenges in creating a more diverse computer science workforce is “the huge difference in background that students have coming into college,” said Alvarado.
The amount and quality of computer education that students receive in K-12 schools varies considerably, and there are also cultural differences in the exposure that students have had with computer science and research, she said. “When students look around and don’t see other students who look like them, and also look around and see students with more experience than them, that’s a real kind of turn-off for some of them,” said Alvarado.
Alvarado said ESRP has created “a huge uptick in the number of students who can do research, and the faculty mentors in ERSP have been impressed with the quality of the students and what they can accomplish.”
She and her colleagues recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to expand the program to seven other institutions over the next five years beginning with UC Santa Barbara, Stanford University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she has been working with the UC San Diego IDEA Center to scale up the program across the engineering school.
Alvarado received her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was an assistant then associate professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College from 2005 to 2014, where her curriculum initiatives helped to increase the percentage of women computer science majors from 12 percent to 50 percent. She is the recipient of the 2017 UC San Diego Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award and the 2017 UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering Faculty of the Year Award, among other honors.
“UCSD is a really exciting place to be working on advancing computer science education,” Alvarado said. “It truly embodies the mission of bringing an amazing undergraduate education to the students of California.”
Since 2006, the ACM Distinguished Member program has recognized its members with at least 15 years of professional experience who have made significant accomplishments or achieved a significant impact on the computing field.
“By honoring these individuals, we highlight the professional achievements behind the technologies that have transformed both our daily lives and society in general,” said ACM President Cherri M. Pancake. “Each Distinguished Member has also demonstrated a commitment to being part of the professional community through his or her longstanding membership in ACM. These computing leaders really epitomize ACM’s mission of ‘advancing computing as a science and a profession.’”
By Becky Ham