April 2012
Howard University Capstone April 2012  
Professor Leads Efforts to Diversify the STEM Fields
By Jordan Duckens, intern, Office of University Communications
Washington frequently works with students at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. (Justin D. Knight)
In 2006, Alicia Nicki Washington, Ph.D., was one year out of graduate school and working as a researcher in Washington, D.C. She often made presentations at Howard about attending grad school, but when she asked her manager why the company had not been actively recruiting there, he told her: “‘Well, we recruit at the more reputable schools,’” she recalls.

That comment helped spark Washington’s decision to change direction in her career. At the time, a full-time position to teach in Howard’s Department of Systems and Computer Science opened up, and once hired she became the youngest tenure-track member of the faculty. (She currently teaches Computer Science II; Human Computer Interaction; Network Modeling and Analysis; and Modeling and Simulation.)
Washington, an associate professor, is not unfamiliar with setting new standards. In 2005, she became the first Black female to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from North Carolina State University. Although there are not many women, particularly Black women, who work in the computer science field, Washington credits two for guiding her toward success.
“If we could get even 15 to 20 percent of those eighth-graders to major in computer science when they get to 11th grade, we’d be doing great.”
Growing up, she watched her mother tinker with computers and eventually started playing around with them on her own. “My mother was a math major but she actually worked her entire career at IBM,” she says. “We always had a computer in our home.”
Both of Washington’s parents attended Johnson C. Smith University, a historically Black college in North Carolina, and she was heavily recruited out of high school to attend the university by Dorothy Yancy, president of Smith at that time. Washington didn’t realize it, but Yancy was grooming her for success.

“She was always one of those individuals that I sought to emulate. She’s very headstrong and opinionated like my mother,” says Washington. “She possessed those qualities that I wanted to follow after.” 

During Washington’s senior year at Smith, Yancy, now president of Shaw University, encouraged her to apply for the David and Lucille Packard Fellowship, which awards $100,000 to complete a doctoral degree in five years. Washington applied and won the coveted scholarship.

“She was the one who pushed me into the direction of a Ph.D. and if she hadn’t done that I probably wouldn’t be talking to you,” says Washington, a member of the Society of Women Engineers.

Today, Washington is inspiring young people to pursue careers in math and science. In addition to her course load at Howard, she teaches at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science (MS)2, a public charter school for 6-8 graders located on campus. She also leads the Partnership for Early Engagement in Computer Science at (MS)2. And, the Department of Systems and Computer Sciences and (MS)2 recently joined with Google to create a program to increase interest in the field of computer science among African American and Hispanic students.

“A lot of students of color don’t get into computer science because they feel like it’s a field for White and Asian males,” says Washington. “They don’t see themselves in it so they don’t see how it pertains to them.”

To remedy the disconnect young minority students may feel toward the subject, Washington and her colleagues use cultural relevance as a method to help students better understand the concepts.

“Cultural relevance doesn’t just mean anything that has to do with Blacks or Latinos, but more so what they do in their everyday lives,” explains Washington. “We teach computer networking using the Metro, because a lot of students use the Metro. We illustrate how routing nodes and links are created using the WMATA system.”

During the spring semester, the students focused on several hands-on projects, such as creating websites, video games, mobile apps and robotics. Noelle Pierce, 12, a seventh-grader in Washington’s computer science class, created a website about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“It was really fun because we actually learned to construct a website and we learned the different parts of it,” says Pierce. “I always wanted to be a chemist or a mathematician, but I’m thinking about going into a field with computer science now.”

Aspirations like Pierce’s are what Washington wants for the majority of her students. She says that the underrepresentation of Blacks in computer science makes it a lucrative field because there’s so much opportunity. Educationally, she says, it’s one of the best majors because there are so many scholarships available, but not enough students to apply for them.

“My ultimate hope is that a lot of these kids go on to study computer science in high school and attend college,” says Washington. “If we could get even 15 to 20 percent of those eighth-graders to major in computer science when they get to 11th grade, we’d be doing great.”

 Washington feels she has found her passion in teaching.

“I love working with students. I love the environment. I love being a role model for the students,” Washington says. “And it’s good for them to have people that look like them to influence and inspire them.”
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