SC-COSMIC Conference Addresses Direction of Minority Education in Science, Math, and Engineering

Encouraging underrepresented minorities to pursue science and mathematics coursework and careers as well as to evaluate the current state of minority education, Rice University and the University of Houston-Downtown (UH-D) hosted more than 100 minority students, faculty members and researchers during a June 25-28 joint conference on the Rice campus.

On June 25, Rice and UH-D conducted "Steering Minority Education for the 21st Century," a conference implemented by the South-Central Computational Science in Minority Institutions Consortium (SC-COSMIC). A related conference, "ADMI 98-Assessment and Vision," followed on June 26-28. ADMI is the Association of Departments of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at Minority Institutions.

Both the SC-COSMIC and ADMI conferences were partially funded through the successful efforts of UH-D Professor and Executive Director for Grants and Contracts Richard Aló, who obtained conference funds from the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Lab.

During the SC-COSMIC conference, students, faculty, and invited speakers discussed the strengths and weaknesses of minority and majority institutions; easing transitions between minority and majority situations, developing Masters and Ph.D. programs at minority institutions and the impact of anti-affirmative action legislation. Professor Richard Tapia, Rice University Associate Director of Minority Affairs, Office of Graduate Studies, and CRPC Director of Human Resources and Education, guided the discussion process. Minority undergraduate and graduate students who participate in a Rice summer research program, "Spend a Summer with a Scientist (SaS)," served as facilitators during conference evaluation sessions (See "Spend a Summer with a Scientist Hits its Ninth Year.")

The group concluded that both minority and majority institutions can nurture and prepare minority students for their futures in significant ways, that minority institutions must enhance their strengths through better funding, and that minority institutions should secure outstanding undergraduate programs before developing graduate programs. Suggestions were made for partnerships between these types of institutions to benefit minorities.

"This conference is itself a result of a strong partnership between Houston's private, majority research institution, Rice, and Houston's public, open-enrollment Hispanic Serving institution, UH-D," noted Aló, who was General Chair of the joint conference, and serves as both President of SC-COSMIC and Vice President of ADMI.

At the ADMI Assessment and Vision Symposium, faculty discussed how to attract and retain minorities in the computer sciences and involve students in research; how to establish facilities, culturally sensitive curricula, and models of education for minority students; and how to improve the research and teaching environment, enhance faculty opportunities, and develop partnerships with major research institutions. Students presented their research in computer science and computer engineering.

Rice SaS students encouraged minority students who attend the UH-D Houston Pre-Freshman Enrichment (PREP) Program to pursue science and mathematics careers. The PREP Program is a tuition-free pre-college enrichment program that encourages and academically prepares socially and economically disadvantaged middle- and high-school students who are interested in computer science, mathematics or engineering. Teachers of the PREP students also attended conference events.

A panel discussion about the impact of anti-affirmative action legislation on the technical workforce in the 21st century featured Judge Dickson, IBM Corporation; Leonel Castillo, City of Houston; Mark Palmer, University of Oklahoma; and Michael Carroll, Rice University.

Aló characterized this panel discussion as "a lively exchange in which most panelists and audience members agreed that affirmative action as it was previously conceived is now dead, but demographic and economic realities require us to refocus, reshape, and recommit to renewed efforts to bring underrepresented minorities into the mainstream of American educational and economic opportunities."

The University of Houston-Downtown, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M University are among founding members of the SC-COSMIC, which promotes state-of-the art science and math education, enables distance learning, shares research, and provides access to online resources.

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