Leveraging Diversity in Software Engineering Education through Community Engaged Learning and a Supportive Network
While a lack of diversity is a longstanding problem in computer science and engineering, universities and organizations continue to look for solutions to this issue. Among the first of its kind, we launched a program at our university aimed to inspire and empower students from underrepresented groups in computer science and engineering to develop digital solutions for society impactful projects by engaging in experiential learning projects with identified community-partners. The twenty-four students in the program came from diverse backgrounds in terms of academic areas of study, genders, ethnicities, and levels of technical and educational experience. Working with six community partners, these students spent four months learning and developing solutions for a societal and/or environmental problem with potential for local and global impacts. Our experiences indicate that working in a diverse team with real clients on solving pressing issues produces a sense of competence, relatedness, and autonomy which are the basis of self-determination theory. Due to the unique structure of this program, the three principles of self-determination theory emerged through different experiences, ultimately motivating the students to build a network of like-minded people. The importance of such a network is profound in empowering students to succeed and, in retrospect, remain in software engineering fields. We address the diversity problem by providing diverse, underrepresented students with a safe and like-minded environment where they can learn and realize their full potential. Hence, in this paper, we describe the program design, experiences, and lessons learned from this approach. We also provide recommendations for universities and organizations that may want to adapt our approach.