February 23, 2021

Robert Parke, #Tapia2021 General Chair Interview

Robert Parke is the 2021 CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing General Chair and a Senior Lecturer of Information Technology USC Viterbi School of Engineering.  Rob spent a little time giving us an update about his life and what is coming for Tapia 2021.

What new projects are you working on this year?

To be honest, COVID-19 has put us a bit in a holding pattern this year.  My time is consumed with Tapia, COVID-19 and teaching introduction to programming, and IoT / electronics. I’m also on a faculty working group to address equity issues in the retention and hiring of faculty.  We are looking at how to increase the pipeline applicants, build more relationships with people and organizations who foster equity in engineering, be fair and equitable in hiring process and outreach.  And we are also looking at how do we create an environment that people want to stay in once they are here.  How do we find ways to reward people’s contributions in diversity at a research university? There are a lot of big conversations happening and we are trying to learn from best practices from around the country.

How have you been dealing with connecting students virtually?

Everyone is suffering from burnout these days.  I believe virtual and asynchronous learning is a great and flexible method of instruction, but the increasing number of people being impacted by COVID as well as the isolation and anxiety from all that has happened in the past year is really affecting students along with faculty and staff. Our students are hanging in there though.  We have synchronous zoom lectures where we are coding and building projects together live to make things engaging.  I’ve moved a lot more explanatory content on how things work to short videos students watch outside class since passively listening while being talked at over Zoom is not very effective for anyone.    It is better that they watch the video for 15 minutes and then we come together to actively apply what they have learned.  I make sure we offer lots of office hours and I’m always available to chat with students.  We are finding new ways to make things work. As challenging as it has been, I’m grateful to USC that I have been able to teach virtually since my disability puts me in a high-risk group for COVID, and I’m not sure how I would debug students code which maintaining social distance.

What did you learn last year from doing the Tapia Conference Virtually?

I learned last year that a virtual conference can be very successful.  We had a great variety of content, and the next thing to be addressed is the engagement portion.  We need to build the mechanism that will allow that casual time to chat with people.  The conference is about connecting, networking, interactions and engagement.  I compare it to being a teacher where I might be focused on the classroom content and experience.  That is important, but students are also interested in making friends, learning to manage on their own, studying, working, partying, balancing responsibilities.  

Going virtual also changed the power dynamics in a good way (as it has in my classroom experience). It is very different when you are in your living room rather than on stage or a podium. It helps to humanize one another and hopefully make us more understanding with each another. I was very pleased at the comments people gave us in our closing survey. People understood we were doing our best to provide create a great experience and had grace with us for the limitations we had.  We are all thinking of ideas about engagement this year.

What topics would you like to see submitted for the conference this year?

I would like to see talks on the Internet of Things, since it encompasses so much of computing – security, analytics, software, privacy, ethics and hardware. 

I am always very personally motivated on topics about Ethics – Bias in algorithms, AI, Machine Learning, etc.  I think those are really important things we need to be addressing and talking about.  Cybersecurity is also critical.  And I’d be interested to have conversations about culturally relevant curriculum and equity issues in the classroom.  How can we make curriculum more inclusive and solve real life problems? 

We are celebrating 20 years of Tapia this year.  What are you looking forward to in the conference?

Practically I’m mostly concerned about the engagement part – how can we connect everyone?  It will also be nice to take a pause and reflect on the legacy of the Tapia conference.  I am so deeply honored to have been a part of it for even a few years.  I feel a sense of belonging in this community which is so welcoming and passionate about things I care about too.  People like Richard Tapia, Valerie Taylor, Richard Ladner, Jeanine Cook, Bryan York and so many others – I’m so humbled.  We are benefitting from the legacy of those who came before. We want to show the current students how previous attendees are continuing to move things forward as professionals because these same current students are going to become the next leaders.

What do you hope the next 20 years brings?

It would be amazing if Tapia didn’t have to exist and we lived in a place where the world was equitable.  Tapia exists to make computer science equitable. We need wholesale change in society to get there though. My hope is that we at least continue to make substantial progress through Tapia and we’re able to bring more people to the table, the classroom, the lab, the professoriate, graduate school, industry – that those places become more reflective of where we live.  We are able to provide more people opportunities to learn about and experience computing so they can discover they have the passion and aptitude for it.  How do we expose people to those things and all the possibilities and careers that are available?  If they never get exposed – they miss out and we as a society miss out on having them.

I would hope that people, regardless of their background, ethnicity, class, ability, gender will have the opportunity to experience and thrive in computing.  We can overcome the barriers – I want to see that academia and industry in computing reflect the actual demographics of the country.