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Cracking the Code

Ignatios Vakalis talking with Amy Fleischer

Professor Ignatios Vakalis and College of Engineering Dean Amy Fleischer discuss diversity issues.

Ignatios Vakalis, who helped increase the number of females pursuing computer science degrees at Cal Poly by 300 percent over the past decade, will be honored Nov. 2 with a national diversity award.

The Claire L. Felbinger Award for Diversity and Inclusion is presented yearly by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), based in Baltimore. Vakalis, a computer science professor at Cal Poly, was honored largely for his work recruiting, supporting, empowering, and educating young women to a field that has been disproportionately represented by men.

While women represent 57 percent of undergraduates nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, they only comprise 17 percent of computer science students. The problem, Vakalis said, begins in high school, when girls are made to believe the field is heavy on programming and dominated by males who work in isolation.

“They are not being empowered or shown that computer science is engaging,” he said. “It’s creative. It’s socially relevant. It’s collaborative. It’s technical. And software is a key component to almost every major innovation.”

Vakalis began his diversity work as a professor of mathematics and computer science at Capital University in Ohio, where he worked to recruit women into mathematics beginning in the 90s. In addition, he co-organized and chaired three International Conferences on the Teaching of Mathematics, bringing together an almost equal number of male and female mathematics faculty from more than 40 counties.

Vakalis joined Cal Poly in 2006 and served as the chair of the department for 10 years. By 2008, Vakalis -- with the support of his department colleagues -- had developed a multi-year strategic plan to draw more women to the computer science program at Cal Poly. At the time, females accounted for roughly 9 percent of the students in computer science and software engineering. By 2017, the number had increased to just under 30 percent.

“What they understood is that it’s a multi-pronged approach,” said Amy Fleischer, dean of the College of Engineering. “It’s not one thing that’s going to solve the problem, but it’s a lot of things.”

The strategic plan featured several components, including the establishment of a project-based introductory course that would appeal to all prospective students by infusing popular elements, such as art, music, mobile app development, security and robotics. Meanwhile, a multi-faceted mentoring program was established – both peer-to-peer mentoring and also with members of the department’s Industry Advisory Board that Vakalis established. In addition, recruiting efforts included mentoring and sending female computer science students to high schools to offer testimonials that would generate enthusiasm among female high school students. Vakalis has also raised significant funds each year so that more women from the Computer Science- Software Engineering department at Cal Poly could attend the annual Grace Hopper Celebration conference, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, which provides inspiration and networking.

Vakalis said encouraging more women in the field is important for two reasons: “There’s a business case, and there’s a humanitarian case,” he said.

Research shows that companies that are more gender-balanced perform better financially, he said, stay under budget more and demonstrate improved employee performance. From a social justice viewpoint, he said, “It’s the right thing to do. The social justice case reflects civil rights and feminism, backed by decades of social progress and research.”

Zoe Wood, another computer science professor – and one of Vakalis’s allies in diversity initiatives – was recently honored with the 2018 Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award, which considered her diversity efforts.

Part of the challenge with recruiting women to the field, Vakalis and Fleischer said, is the Hollywood portrayal of computer scientists as males.

“I think it’s starting to change,” Fleischer said.

Recruiting more females to the field is a marketing effort, she added, pointing out the positive aspects of the field.

“If you can show the difference you can make in the world – that engineering is not sitting in a cubicle by yourself, but it’s working in teams and impacting the human experience, that works,” Fleischer said.

Vakalis, whose office features a poster of Lady Gaga –another champion of diversity -- said the field offers a bright future for women, starting with a favorable work outlook.

“The department has 100-percent employment placement after the students graduate,” said Vakalis, who has also brought many female Silicon Valley computer scientists to campus for professional talks. “And the highest paid jobs are the female computer scientists.”

The diversity efforts have made Cal Poly a model for other colleges and universities, said Chris Lupo, the current department chair, who nominated Vakalis for the distinction. “His vision, passion, mentoring and incredible support of women in computing has truly transformed the department to a national leader in this area,” Lupo wrote in his nomination.

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