Chris Murphy, a professor of practice in Penn’s Computer and Information Science department, has gained attention from students and administrators for his efforts to incorporate discussions of diversity and wellness into his computer science course.
Murphy teaches CIS 350, Software Design and Engineering, a computer science elective that teaches students to develop efficient and reliable software. This semester, he began assigning mandatory biweekly readings and discussion posts on diversity and wellness in the technology industry. Students agreed this is a significant step toward promoting diversity in the field, but said these discussions should be expanded to the rest of Penn's computer science curriculum.
Topics covered have included why diversity in matters in the field, inclusion of women in engineering, and what wellness looks like in the technology industry.
Murphy, who has taught in the Engineering School since 2010 and received a Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence in March 2019, said he was inspired to include discussions of diversity and wellness in his coursework after attending the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration of women in computing.
“I had interest in diversity issues, especially women in computing, but I was not really active about it, admittedly,” Murphy said, adding that a conference session he attended on mental health made him realize the importance of bringing these discussions to Penn.
The discussions are organized by Murphy and by teaching assistants designated specially for the role — two TAs for diversity and inclusion and one TA for wellness. TA for diversity and inclusion Wenli Zhao, a first-year computer graphics and game design master’s student, said the TAs helped Murphy select which articles to assign as readings and develop the discussion prompts that students respond to. They have also hosted optional in-person discussions for students throughout the semester.
"We want students to feel comfortable going to Professor Murphy or someone else on staff when they are having a rough week,” said College and Engineering junior Diana Marsala, who is the head TA for the course.
TAs and students said Murphy's discussions are important because they address issues that are not talked about enough within the Engineering School.
“I think Professor Murphy’s commitment to student health and equality is crucial for students in a challenging curriculum that is not spending time addressing these things,” Engineering junior Davis Polito said. “I think it is important that these initiatives be included in the intro CIS classes as it can allow for an understanding of the issues from the start of our careers at Penn.”
Zhao also said wellness and diversity discussions should be incorporated into introductory computer science courses.
“One question I have always had is, ‘Why are we waiting for an elective to teach this?’ or ‘Why isn’t this in the intro class?’” Zhao said. “Some of the intro courses, like CIS 110 which is mandatory for all majors and minors, could benefit from setting the tone early for other courses.”
The Engineering School has long struggled with a lack of diversity. In 2017, less than 10% of graduating seniors in Engineering identified as black or Latino, compared to 17% across the University. The percentage of women faculty also dropped from 18.6% in 2016 to 16.7% in 2018. Murphy said there are currently discussions taking place about have more formal diversity education across the entire department.
"Other courses I have been in have made a mention of wellness on the first day of class, but then the conversation ends,” Marsala said. “I think these are the conversations we need to continue having."