Dr. Christine Alvarado, Associate Dean for Students of the Jacobs School of Engineering and Teaching Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, has been named the recipient of the 2022 Joanne McGrath Cohoon Service Award.
The award, sponsored by AT&T, honors distinguished educators and staff who have effectively challenged and changed the systems that shape the experiences of women undergraduates in postsecondary computing programs. Award recipients demonstrate exceptional commitment to, and success in, creating long-lasting systemic change that improves the environment for all students who identify as women. The award is given in memory of Dr. Cohoon’s outstanding research and advocacy work to broaden and enrich women’s participation in computing.
Dr. Alvarado has worked to effect systemic change that significantly improved the environment for women students at two institutions, Harvey Mudd College (HMC) and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), through efforts that span the NCWIT Systemic Change model. At HMC, she helped to establish permanent structures that increased the percentage of women in computer science (CS) from 12 percent to roughly 50 percent, while at UCSD, she created programs and policies that vastly increased the number of women who do research in CS, and also contributed to the increase in women CS majors from 18 percent to 22 percent since 2017.
Despite her focused career path, computer science did not always appeal to Dr. Alvarado. In a 2012 interview published in the Computing Research Association’s Committee on Widening Participation in Computing Research newsletter, she shared that, “Growing up, a career in computer science was the last thing I thought I would have. I knew computers were the future, but I didn’t want anything to do with them. I remember telling my parents when I was about 11 or 12 how much I hated computers and how I was going to have the only career that existed when I grew up that did not involve computers.”
“The problem was,” she continued, “that I had no idea what computer science was. I didn’t see the point of computers — as far as I knew, you used them to type up papers and play games, neither of which I wanted to build a career around. However, when I took my first computer science class (AP CS, in high school), I suddenly fell in love. I loved the puzzle aspects of solving problems and programming. When I took a few more classes in college and started to understand the rich nature of the field, I was hooked.”
Dr. Alvarado earned her undergraduate degree in computer science from Dartmouth College in 1998, graduating summa cum laude. She received her S.M. and Ph.D. in computer science from MIT in 2000 and 2004, respectively, and then joined the faculty at HMC as an assistant professor.
Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, recalls, ”Christine’s arrival in 2005 at HMC as an assistant professor was the catalyst that caused our CS department to become a major leader in efforts to increase the participation of women in computer science. In her first year she partnered with senior faculty to develop a new version of the introductory course CS5 that every student takes in their first semester.”
Dr. Alvarado also launched the “Take Students to Hopper” (i.e., the Grace Hopper Celebration) initiative in 2006, which soon grew to more than 50 students per year. These trips helped to retain and recruit women students to the CS major, and to recruit students to HMC. She also co-led the effort to offer summer research experiences to women students after their first year, served as principal investigator on the school’s NSF CPATH grant to expand the CS5 course to other universities, and performed an evaluation on the efficacy of departmental efforts that led to papers published in respected industry journals including SIGCSE, CACM, and ITiCSE.
“Her enthusiasm and energy inspired the entire department to embrace changes that increased inclusion in all aspects of its work. Over time, this spread to other Mudd departments, inspiring changes in curriculum and pedagogy throughout the institution,” Klawe added.
After joining UCSD in 2012, Dr. Alvarado developed the CSE Early Research Scholars Program (ERSP), an inclusive academic year-long research apprenticeship program for second-year computing undergraduates. Since its inception in 2017, ERSP has provided 129 women and non-binary students (54 percent of participants) with early research opportunities that were not previously available. The program has expanded to seven additional universities.
Dr. Sorin Lerner, chair of the Computer Science and Engineering department at UC San Diego, notes that “Professor Avarado’s ERSP mentorship program created a blueprint that has been adopted elsewhere, including at UC Santa Barbara, at University of Illinois at Chicago, at Stanford, and in UC San Diego’s very own Jacobs schoolwide program called GEAR. All of these programs are directly modeled after Professor Alvarado’s ERSP. This kind of visible impact in DEI efforts is truly rare.”
Dr. Alvarado also spearheaded the development of the lottery-based admissions for current UCSD students applying to switch to a CSE major. Before 2017, admission had been GPA-based, which disadvantaged students with less pre-college experience. The new system uses a random lottery among students who have met a modest minimum GPA in a set of courses. This change increased the percentage of women admitted to CSE by increasing the percentage of women in the applicant pool from 20.3 percent to 24.7 percent.
Additionally, Dr. Alvarado was one of two initial faculty on the UCSD grassroots CSE DEI committee, which she helped transition to a standing department committee. She also initiated “Inclusion Minutes,” a 5-10 minute presentation and discussion of a practice someone uses to increase DEI in their classes or labs that takes place at the beginning of every CSE faculty meeting.
Dr. Alvarado employs data analysis in her efforts to broaden women’s participation in computer science. She helps to produce the annual UC San Diego Engineering “diversity reports,” and to present this data to CSE faculty to guide their committee work. She also presented a data analysis study of CS retention at UCSD in the 2018 ACM Report “Retention in Computer Science Undergraduate Programs in the U.S.”
Dr. Alvarado’s other professional activities include serving on the College Board’s commission to design the new AP CS: Principles course, and as a co-chair of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Academic Alliance.