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Associate Professor Vandana Singh Wins Google Award for Inclusion Research

For the past couple of years, SIS Associate Professor Vandana Singh has been increasingly sought after to speak about her research on women and marginalized people in software engineering—namely how those groups often face a toxic culture of inequity, exclusion, discrimination, and even outright bullying in their field.

Singh recently won the highly competitive Google Award for Inclusion Research 2021. Through this award, Singh plans to continue her research and teaching by developing and implementing an undergraduate course aimed at teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) topics to information technology students. Singh and University of Alabama Professor Jeffery Carver were selected for this international award for their project, “Educating Students to be Better Citizens of Tech Communities: DEI Focus.” Together they will create a course to be offered at the University of Tennessee in the fall 2022 semester with a plan to replicate it across information technology programs.

“Jeff and I thought that it is more important to educate everybody, minorities and everybody around them. So the idea is to educate everyone to be a better citizen of the tech industry, with a DEI focus,” she said.

Singh said there’s been a focus in recent years to teach technology professionals soft skills, but DEI skills has yet to be integrated into that conversation and that is what makes this a novel, innovative project. Her hope is to teach students before they even enter the field that creating an inclusive and equitable culture in tech spaces is a vital skillset.

One teaching tool she plans to employ is using first-hand stories of people in the field who have had negative experiences because of their diversity.

“Most people can make the transition of empathy once they’re actually aware of how this makes somebody feel. There are so many things we will bring into one space: teaching, collaboration, and all in an IT domain,” she said.

Singh and Carver will start working on the project in January 2022 and then the class will be offered to any student who plans on having an IT career. Long-term, their goal is to ensure the pilot program is replicable so it can be implemented at a variety of other institutions.

As part of the course, students will participate in open source software spaces in an internship-style format so they can experience and implement their new DEI skills. This will allow them to have real-world experience in identifying and responding to the types of toxic behaviors that affect women and others in those spaces.

“There’s going to be a lot of reflection and a lot of learning for all involved in terms of how things are happening and how to address them,” she said. “People who are knowingly or unknowingly causing harm will be able to see it and are better able to course correct for themselves and become allies. And people on the receiving end will know how to advocate for themselves and create their own support networks as they transition into real work workplaces”

Singh says that to her it is the best of both worlds because she is   getting academic accolades for her research and the real-life impact of her work is simultaneously being recognized by the software engineering industry.

Her new role as an executive committee member for the ACM-W and co-chair for Student Chapters for North America will help her disseminate her research and teaching experience with students and faculty in many countries.