Working Class

Three years into his doctoral studies, Juan E. Gilbert, Ph.D., didn’t know any other African Americans with Ph.D.s in computer science. “I always thought I was the only one,” says Gilbert. Almost 14 years later he is chair of Clemson University’s Human-Centered Computing division, where 12 of his 15 Ph.D. students and, come the fall, six of the faculty members will be African American.

While most computer science programs struggle to enroll even one black student, Clemson has 16 African American Ph.D. candidates (among the School of Computing’s HCC and computer science programs, which equated to 9.3% of all computer science Ph.D. candidates during the 2010-2011 academic year), and Gilbert says that seven black students have confirmed they will attend Clemson this fall.

Computer science is expected to be one of the fastest-growing occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The good news is that the enrollment of African American graduate students in computer science and math increased 33.6% between the fall semesters of 2009 and 2010, reports the Council of Graduate Schools. The bad news is that the increase is still only a drop in the bucket considering that only 1.4% of graduates with Ph.D.s in computer science, computer engineering, and information sciences last year were black, according to the Computing Research Association.

So what makes this program so special? Research shows that minorities gravitate to social science careers or helping professions, says Gilbert. HCC is popular with minorities and women because it unites STEM and social science. Studies also show that African Americans flourish in environments with a strong support group of other high-achieving African Americans.

Touching Humans Through Technology
Human-centered computing is about using technology, information, policy, and culture to solve real-world problems, and Gilbert’s HCC division has been quite successful thus far. The State of Oregon used Prime III, the lab’s hands-free voting technology, in five counties during the 2012 Republican primary. In June 2011, the United States Election Assistance Commission awarded Gilbert and his lab a three-year, $4.5 million grant from the Research Alliance for Accessible Voting.

Gilbert received the White House’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring last November. The award included $25,000 from the National Science Foundation to advance his mentoring efforts.

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