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<< Back to March 2004 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the March 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 2.]

Expanding the Pipeline

Plans to Expand the Distributed Mentor Project

By Nancy Amato, Lori A. Clarke, and Jessica Hodgins

The Computing Research Association's (CRA) Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W) initiated and oversees the Distributed Mentor Project (DMP). The goal of the DMP is to increase the number of women entering graduate studies in the fields of computer science and computer engineering. It brings together CS&CE undergraduates and faculty for a summer of research at the mentor's research institution. Students become directly involved in research, meet and interact with graduate students and faculty, and work with successful researchers. This experience has proved to be invaluable to those students who are considering applying to graduate school.

Since its inception in 1994, more than 250 students have participated in the program. The most recent evaluation of the DMP, conducted by the LEAD (Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation and Dissemination) Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that 51.3% of the participants who had graduated had either already obtained a graduate degree or were enrolled in graduate school. This is in contrast to the Baccalaureate and Beyond survey, conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics in 1994, which found that only 2.53% of women who graduated with a 3.5 or above in CS&CE went on to graduate school, while the rate was 29.19% for the comparable set of male graduates.

As the program has become more widely known, the number of undergraduate and faculty mentor applicants has increased. During the past three years, student applications have increased by about 50% each year. With increased support from the National Science Foundation, the number of selected students has also increased each year, but not nearly as dramatically. Thus, with this increasing interest but limited funding, many qualified undergraduate applicants have not been selected.

To increase the number of qualified students who can participate in the DMP, the program is being expanded in two ways:

  1. The DMP is encouraging institutional cost sharing. Recognizing that academic institutions or individual faculty sometimes have access to funds (sometimes earmarked for diversity or outreach efforts), faculty participants will be encouraged to help fund the student's summer research experience when possible. These funds can be used to fully or partially support undergraduate participants. We intend to maintain the same high standards in selecting undergraduate students and faculty mentors. Our goal, however, is to increase the number of qualified undergraduates that can participate. This is especially important as the popularity of the program continues to grow.
  2. An Affiliated Distributed Mentor Program (DMP-A) is being initiated that will provide more opportunities for male faculty to participate as mentors. DMP-A mentors provide full funding for their students' stipends. Mentors are selected based on their active research program, appropriateness of undergraduate participation in that program, an active graduate environment, and past mentoring experience, especially with women students. Although the DMP program has always accepted applications from all faculty, qualified women faculty have been given priority since research shows that women faculty are particularly effective role models for encouraging undergraduate women to pursue graduate studies. Hence, it is anticipated that the DMP-A program will enable more qualified students to participate in the DMP, while also providing a good mechanism for male faculty to mentor DMP students.

Students typically work with a faculty member during a ten-week period over the summer. Undergraduates are selected who have demonstrated, through grades and letters of recommendation, that they have the potential to succeed in a graduate program. Undergraduates are usually in their junior year, and have completed a significant number of computer science and related courses so that they have the background to contribute to a research project.

Participating students usually work alongside graduate students on a project and thus are provided an opportunity to experience some aspects of graduate school first-hand. DMP students also interact closely with a faculty member who can explain the goals, directions, and approaches being pursued within the research project, as well as provide career guidance. For many women computer science students, this is their first opportunity to interact with a woman faculty member. Male mentors are encouraged to provide opportunities for DMP students to interact with female faculty and graduate students.

Although many CS&CE faculty engage undergraduates in their research projects, the DMP tries to provide a sense of "community" to the DMP students in order to help lessen the isolation that is sometimes associated with being a member of an underrepresented group. These activities include such things as receiving material from the DMP program, contributing to the DMP project web pages, and attending conferences where DMP students are gathering. All selected students are considered part of the DMP community, whether a student is teamed with a DMP or DMP-A mentor. DMP students are eligible for financial support to help cover travel expenses to their mentor's institution, attendance at conferences to promote their research, or participation in DMP activities.

The DMP has a rigorous selection process. To apply to be a student participant, students must fill out the web-based application form and provide a current transcript along with two letters of recommendation from faculty members. To apply to be a mentor, faculty must fill out a web-based application form and describe the DMP student projects that they would like to direct. Either a faculty applicant or a student applicant, or both, can request to be paired as a team, but the selection committee may not select a requested team for various reasons. Even if a faculty member is willing to fully fund a DMP student, both the faculty member and student must meet the high selection requirements of the program. This year, application materials for students and mentors were due March 1, 2004.

Student applicants should be attending a U.S. or Canadian college or university, studying computer science or computing engineering, and seriously considering going to graduate school in one of these areas. Priority is given to juniors, but seniors and sophomores with a strong background may also apply. Funding consists of $600 per week for ten weeks over the summer, plus travel assistance when appropriate. DMP-A mentors are expected to provide $6,000 or $12,000 to fund one or two students for the summer.

Many faculty already have undergraduates participating in their research laboratories, so why should they apply to be DMP or DMP-A mentors? There are several possible benefits. The DMP students benefit by participating in DMP community activities. With declining undergraduate enrollments and a declining number of women undergraduates in CS&CE, this provides an opportunity to increase the diversity of those participating in the discipline. Finally, some funding programs, such as the NSF REUs, encourage faculty to increase participation by underrepresented groups. The DMP, in effect, is providing a service where outstanding undergraduates are matched with faculty doing research in an area that interests them. We encourage faculty members to support the DMP programs by applying to be mentors and by helping to fund students when possible.

Industry can help too! Funding for the DMP and other CRA-W outreach programs is an ongoing concern. The National Science Foundation has been providing the majority of the funds for this program. The DMP has also been supported by the Education, Outreach, and Training program of NSF's Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI) (1998-2002), USENIX (2001, 2003), AAAI (2002), and the Henry Luce Foundation (2004-2006). The NSF, however, cannot continue to fund ongoing projects. The CRA-W must find new funding sources if this program is to continue as well as grow. Companies and foundations can help by donating funds to the Computing Research Association that are earmarked to support the DMP and other diversity programs, such as Collaborative Research Experiences for Women (CREW). For more information about the CRA-W donors' program, contact Lori Clarke at clarke [at]

This year, the DMP program is being co-chaired by Nancy Amato, Texas A&M University, and Jessica Hodgins, Carnegie Mellon University. For more information about the DMP, consult the DMP webpages,, or send your questions to dmp [at]

Nancy Amato (Texas A&M University) and Jessica Hodgins (Carnegie Mellon University) co-chair CRA-W's Distributed Mentor Program. Lori A. Clarke (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) is a member of both CRA-W and the CRA Board of Directors.


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