The CRA Distributed Mentor Project:

Mentoring Undergradutate Women in Computer Science and Computer Engineering


The Distributed Mentor Project was first suggested in the NSF proposal on the CRA Status of Women in CS. A proposal to fund the project for the years 1994--96 was prepared by Professor Joseph O'Rourke of Smith College, together with a committee of eleven volunteers gathered by the CRA Committee on the Status of Women (CRAW). In May 1993, NSF awarded $240K to this project, to fund the project for the years 1994 and 1995. The project was aggressively advertised in the Fall of 1993.

For the year 1994, 76 student applications from 24 different states and 35 mentor applications from 20 different states were received. NSF responded to the large interest in the project by supplying an extra $25K for additional matches. A selection committee formed by the CRAW matched 25 students with mentors at research universities. A survey of the participants following the summer research experience showed that the project was a great success. For example, 22 out of the 25 matches worked well, and 11 out of the 14 student respondents said they felt more inclined to apply for graduate school. Following a second year of strong interest and high-quality applications, a further 25 students are currently being supported through the summer of 1995.

A second proposal to continue the project was prepared by Professor Anne Condon of the University of Wisconsin and submitted to NSF in January of 1995. NSF has awarded $530K to fund at least 20 student/mentor matches for the three years 1995-1998, and to perform a longitudinal evaluation of the project.


Women are severely underrepresented in CS&E, with the percentages of women decreasing at successively higher levels of both academic and industrial ranks. The Distributed Mentor project is designed to improve the statistics at one stage of the so-called ``shrinking pipeline,'' in order to increase the representation of women holding high-level positions in industry and academia. Because of its distributed nature, the project reaches a wide pool of students that can benefit from the experience, not just those who are already in a position to locate an advisor that can support and undergraduate research.

A research experience is widely considered to be a key means of attracting students to careers in technical professions. The ideal environment for the student is at a university that provides the student with a window on graduate student life, enabling her to form a mental model of the environment to which we are trying to attract her. However, mentor applications from industry will be considered, if the costs are covered by their companies.

We are emphasizing the mentoring role as well as the research role of the advisor. Informal mentoring relationships have traditionally been linked with learning and professional success. The Distributed Mentor Project enables underrepresented women in CS&E and closely related fields to enjoy the benefits of these relationships. Since the number female faculty in CS&E departments is extremely low (in PhD-granting institutions the average is less than 2 per department, with many institutions having none at all), undergraduate women in CS&E currently have extremely limited access to role models at their institutions. Mentors will provide students with this and several other valuable mentoring functions.


Selection criteria for students emphasize potential for success in graduate school and ability to make effective use of the research and mentoring opportunities. Criteria for mentors emphasize an active research program, a suitable research project for someone at the undergraduate level, and ability to mentor effectively. Matches between students and mentors are made by a selection/support committee chosen by the CRA. Students and mentors may request specific matches. A mentor may support more than one, though typically no more than two, students.

The project will build on other successful mentoring programs such as that run by the Association for Women in Science. Training packages will be provided to mentors and students, in order to maximize the effectiveness of the mentoring component of the project. Electronic discussion groups and newsletters will enable participating mentors and students to share information and advice, and will facilitate follow-up of the students after the summer research period. < An extensive evaluation will be conducted over the five years 1994-1998. By tracking students, mentors and a set of matched controls, the evaluation will provide quantitative and qualitative data on the effectiveness of the project in achieving its goal. If the project is successful, this evaluation will greatly enhance its long-term impact.