Carnegie Mellon University

Headshot of Shawn Blanton

October 17, 2016

At the crossroads of learning and technology

The following story is an excerpt published in Diversity in Action.

Professor Shawn Blanton teaches dozens of students each semester — this is his Clark Kent-style daytime occupation. However, when the proverbial sun goes down, he helps create cutting-edge technology that actively learns and adapts itself to the outside world.

 “[My lab and I] are trying to design a computer chip that has the capability to learn about their environment so that they can perform better, use less energy, better predict what kind of situation that they’re in so that they can better meet the task at hand,” says Blanton.

Blanton speaks of this with pride, both from his own work in the area as well as his lab’s role at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He teaches in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, while also serving as the associate director of the SYSU-CMU International Joint Research Institute — a collaborative engineering group between the Sun Yat-sen University in China and Carnegie Mellon.  

Blanton grew up in Detroit and when he was younger, he remembers receiving an early clue about the future profession he would seek. “A friend of a cousin was a recent graduate in electrical engineering, and he worked at Ford,” Blanton says. “As a single guy, doing pretty well, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, that’s something that looks fairly interesting,’ and I always liked math and science.”

Other role models for Blanton came from home: “There’s no one I can think of outside of [my parents] that had that much influence on me. My dad had a really strong work ethic — he worked and worked, and he came home, and he worked, so I picked up some of that. And from my mother I picked up this tenacity, like ‘don’t take no for an answer,’” he says.  

Blanton later used these skills to attend Calvin College in Michigan, as well as the University of Arizona. In 1995, Blanton earned his doctorate in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Despite his successful academic performance, not all of the universities were welcoming for Blanton. “Calvin is a college where the number of African-Americans you can count on one hand. ... I got a few questions about basketball and dancing that were really sort of shocking, especially on a Christian campus,” Blanton recalls, “so adapting to that socially, culturally, was very challenging.”

Blanton gets an enormous amount of joy from working with students he encounters at Carnegie. Seeing the diverse faces that the university attracts gives him confidence that admissions offices, both there and throughout the country, are learning how critical it is to appeal to different groups of potential students. “For nearly 20 years now, I’ve gone with a team of graduate students of color across the engineering college with another faculty member to recruit students for mostly Ph.D. degrees and summer research internships at Carnegie Mellon,” Blanton says.

He loves giving back to communities in this way, and his team of students and faculty are some of the only groups in the country recruiting promising youth directly from career fairs.

His pride for Carnegie Mellon’s current efforts at implementing diversity initiatives is tempered with the knowledge that there is still more work to be done. “This country is 30 percent non-white. If you think having a diverse body is good, then there’s a cost. You have to be willing [to support that],” Blanton says. “The dean’s office, the dean himself, has dedicated huge resources to support the tuition and stipend of underrepresented minorities in the graduate program at Carnegie Mellon. I’m very glad to be a part of that effort.”