iCS: A case study

By leveraging social aspects of collaborative work and peer mentorship, igniteCS nurtured greater belonging, confidence, and resilience among undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds in computer science.

Research problem

In difference the growing diversity in the medical field and other STEM programs, the representation of women and people of color in computer science (CS) is consistently low. Few students from these underrepresented groups (URGs) enroll in CS, and among those that do, retention rates are substantially lower compared to their white male peers.

Three years after launching igniteCS, Google wanted to know (1) how igniteCS affected students’ sense of belonging in their field, and (2) whether belonging increased student commitment to completing their CS degrees.

Key research areas and questions

  1. Participant Characteristics: What are the characteristics of iCS student volunteers? 
  2. Experiences and Outcomes:
    • How do different student volunteers engage with specific features of iCS?
    • Does participation in iCS contribute to student commitment and sense of belonging to the field of CS, and CS career aspirations?
  3. Supports: What experiences and program features contributed to student commitment and sense of belonging to the field of CS and CS career aspirations?

User-centric strategy

Six-month field study using interviews and focus groups explored patterns of individual experiences and the effect of collaborative work.

Connected learning model allowed for closer examination of how iCS opportunity elevated students’ shared interests and peer + professional mentorship relationships into a different educational experience.

Insight to program components

The fact that you have this group collaborating to do something better than what they stand for by themselves, that has helped me. I never thought I would go on and teach students, learn how to create different lesson plans, [or] be able to know certain material, and now I do. It’s the fact that you’re with this group that really changed who I am as a student.

Diego, CS third-year student

Key outcomes of iCS participation

  • Feelings of psychological safety elevated sense of confidence in CS courses.
  • Peer mentorship in CS provided emotional and tangible support to achieve academic success.
  • Profound identity transformation to capable computer scientists who recognize the value of their contribution.

Key iCS features to inform future program development

  • Validating and agentic activities: Google brand empowered and validated URGs interests, incentivizing them to join.
  • Amplified the interests and strengths of URGs: iCS flipped the script on what previously disadvantaged URGs with this opportunity to apply their education to making a meaning difference in their communities.
  • Lifting student autonomy and initiative: Students identified with the mission but repurposed the material to develop unique programs addressing local needs that inspired them most.
  • Peer-to-peer and near-peer mentorship: Collaborative work nurtured strong, trusting bonds between students of varying seniority, including recent grads that helped rising seniors in their college-to-career transition.

Contextual background

Google for Education is committed to empowering the next generation of thinkers by providing high quality tools and resources that help to develop valuable skills in scientific thinking and digital literacy. As part of their 2014 partnership with Gallup to research computer science (CS) education in the US, Google developed their igniteCS initiative to encourage undergraduate students from underrepresented groups (URG) to work together as volunteers to address gaps in digital literacy and CS education in their local communities.

This study was done through the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine under the supervision of Dr. Mizuko Ito (PI).