Supporting Black Scholars in Robotics

Carlotta A. Berry addressing students
Photo: Bryan Cantwell/Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology In this article, Carlotta A. Berry [pictured above], Aaron M. Johnson, and Henny Admoni suggest ways in which the robotics community can help diminish marginalization of Black researchers.

By: Aaron M. Johnson, Henny Admoni and Carlotta A. Berry

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent positions of IEEE or its organizational units.

Robotics is a fast-growing field with important economic and societal impacts. Despite the relevance of robotics, however, there is little diversity among educators and researchers in the area. This problem is especially acute among Black scholars and is not improving. In this article, we outline the representation problem and introduce a reading list along with suggestions for how those in academia—researchers, teachers, students, conference organizers, and others—can take actions that increase Black representation in robotics. While our analysis focuses on the situation in the United States, we hope that our suggestions will be of use to colleagues in other countries as well.

Diversity in academia is critical, and the necessary changes will only happen with sustained work on the part of all academics. We’re happy to add our voices to the growing chorus that is working to increase representation in robotics and academia more broadly. We hope that our reading list of work from Black researchers in robotics will help in some small way to overcome existing systemic dynamics and repair the current imbalance.

The Problem of Underrepresentation

While there are no national-level statistics about robotics researchers by race, statistics about engineering provide some insight into participation, since robotics is often classified as a subfield of engineering. In 2018, 12.7 percent of the U.S. population was Black or African American, but only 4.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering went to Black scholars. This continues up the academic path, with 4.8 percent of master’s and 4.2 percent of PhD degrees in engineering being awarded to Black scholars. None of these rates have substantially increased in the last 10 years. Black faculty members make up even less of the professoriate, with 2.4 percent of tenured or tenure track faculty identifying as Black. The low rates of Black representation in engineering degrees and faculty jobs makes it apparent that Black people are being massively underrepresented in academic engineering.

This underrepresentation is driven by, among other things, implicit biasstructural racism, and marginalization at every level of academia. These factors work directly against Black researchers’ success, which depends in large part on participation and recognition from other researchers. Participation can influence paper or grant reviews, which affects whether a researcher gets to share their research or even conduct that research at all. Once that work is completed, recognition influences paper citations, which (though a flawed metric) is often used to measure a researcher’s “impact” in the field.

Recognition can also drive invitations to speaking engagements, nominations for awards, and other opportunities that in turn lead to further participation and recognition. All of these elements factor into hiring and promotion decisions. Furthermore, current low levels of representation among the faculty leads to a self-perpetuating cycle: Black students don’t have role models, mentors, and career options in academia; non-Black students don’t see examples of Black academic success.

Addressing the Problem

One way to increase representation in academic robotics is to increase the recognition of Black scholars’ work. This reading list is aimed to increase the visibility of work by Black scholars across robotics. It contains a listing of Black faculty members and other prominent researchers at U.S. institutions who research or teach in the field of robotics. Along with each person’s name and short bio, the list provides three representative robotics publications.

Whether browsing this list online, seeing a researcher on a panel, or reading one of their papers as a class assignment, it is important for everyone in the community to see diversity in academia. With this reading list, we aim to normalize Black scholarship, as a way to reduce unconscious bias, combat structural racism, and diminish marginalization of Black roboticists.

How Can You Use the Reading List?

There are many ways in which you can use this reading list to take actions that combat underrepresentation, marginalization, and isolation:

Build a Community

  • Read through the list and identify synergies with your research interests.
  • Collaborate with Black scholars on research projects, papers, and proposals.
  • If you are an undergraduate student, find summer research experiences or identify role models in a desired field of study.
  • If you are a student applying for graduate school or postdoc positions, browse the list to find exciting research labs and researchers to work with.
  • Exchange robotics-related course curricula.
  • Do STEM outreach together.
  • Have your research groups get together to share ideas.

Normalize Black Scholarship

Grow Black Scholars

  • Encourage Black undergraduate students to apply for summer research experiences and pursue graduate studies. This reading list of Black faculty members can only grow if we give Black students the opportunity to have meaningful research experiences.
  • Mentor Black students on academic and non-academic career paths, how graduate school and faculty applications work, and what they can do to achieve their career goals.
  • Encourage undergraduate students considering graduate programs to conduct research with Black scholars.
  • Write letters of recommendation for students for scholarships, fellowships, and graduate school. Write letters of recommendation for faculty for promotion, tenure, and fellowships.
  • Recommend or nominate Black researchers for awards, editorial boards, grant reviews, endowed professorships, or portfolio letters.

Next Steps

These actions alone are not going to change the system, and we need to start taking bigger actions to change the structural racism that leads to this inequity. This starts by joining together to work towards a more inclusive future. We are excited to support the newly formed Black in Robotics organization—and are looking forward to the launch event on Friday, 11 September.

As individuals, we need to support Black students, ask “how is racism operating here” (in our schools, workplaces, and the field more generally), and advocate for change at all levels. Institutions need to implement sustained efforts to recruit and retain Black students and faculty, including removing systemic obstacles that disproportionately affect minority students. The country needs to change the way research is funded, by studying how racism affects research and enforcing civil rights legislation. The system that led to this imbalance will not change without a focused effort and a combination of actions both big and small by all members of the community.

Aaron M. Johnson is an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pa. His research interests are in understanding contact and uncertainty for real-world robots, especially legged locomotion and manipulation.

Henny Admoni is an assistant professor in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research aims to understand and develop autonomous, intelligent robots that help people live better through social and physical assistance and collaboration.

Carlotta A. Berry is a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in Terre Haute, Indiana. She helped found and co-directs both the Rose Building Undergraduate Diversity (ROSE-BUD) program and the multidisciplinary robotics program. Her research focuses on educational mobile robotics, enhanced human-robot interfaces, and recruitment and retention activities for underrepresented populations in electrical and computer engineering.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 10 September 2020.