UMaine research program to increase retention, success of computing students receives $1.5M NSF award

Computers run modern life, and the need for workers who understand how they function is more important now than ever. Penny Rheingans, professor and director of the School of Computing and Information Science at the University of Maine, has made it her mission to make computer science degrees achievable for students no matter where they come from. 

Socioeconomic factors such as income and family educational background have been shown by previous research to affect student persistence in STEM fields like computer science, but there is a lack of research about how programs combining academic support, mentoring, professional skill development and service learning can help students overcome those barriers. 

Rheingans leads a team of UMaine faculty and staff committed to finding the barriers to computing students’ success and tackling them head-on, including Roy Turner, associate professor of computer science; Terry Yoo, associate professor of computer science; Chris Dufour, lecturer in computer science; Sarah Saeed, program coordinator at the Department of Computer Science; and Vanessa Klein, assistant professor of education and assistant Extension professor.

This team was recently awarded nearly $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a six-year project that will fund scholarships and support programming for 30 full-time UMaine high-achieving, low-income students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in computer science. The resulting program will be named the Computing Community for Good (CCG). 

In the CCG program, first-year scholarship recipients will receive up to four years of scholarship support and transfer students will receive up to three years of support. In addition to providing support for tuition, the program will include a summer bridge program; faculty, peer and industry mentorship; academic and professional development activities; a living-learning community; and seminars of first-year success, professional skills, and leadership.

The project will support curriculum changes that aim to improve the career-readiness of UMaine computing students in the program. As part of the program, the students will also use their developing computing skills to improve local communities and beyond.

“Computer science has become important to solving problems in a wide range of areas, from sustainability to health care to scientific discovery. CCG Scholars will engage in STEM outreach to rural students through 4-H and work on sustainability challenges as part of efforts of the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. These service learning elements help students understand the potential impact of their field and to develop leadership skills,” says Rheingans.

Meanwhile, researchers will look at the perceptions of barriers that students in the program have to pursuing computing in higher education, whether participants think project activities can mitigate those barriers and how support services and community support impact the success of the student. Through administrative data, focus groups, interviews with institutional players and surveys with students, graduates and institutional partners, this project aims to advance the understanding of how post-secondary computing programs can alleviate the pressures impacting these students to improve their educational outcomes.

“Computer science students in Maine are more likely than students in most places to come from a low-income background, to come from a rural high school, or to be the first in their family to attend college. As a first-generation student myself, I am particularly aware of some of the extra challenges for such students. Through this program, we aim to ensure that those students are as likely to succeed as those from more privileged backgrounds,” says Rheingans.

Rheingans also co-leads the UMS TRANSFORMS Maine College of Engineering, Computer and Information Science initiative, which aims to develop the technical workforce and innovations that are critical to moving Maine’s economy forward through engineering and computer science education. The initiative has been made possible by a $75 million donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation and a $75 million matching donation for a total of $150 million. 

“Increasing the number and diversity of computing graduates is critically important for Maine’s economy and communities. Last year, there were over 1,000 postings for computing jobs, but fewer than 300 computing graduates statewide. This project will allow us to address that need for more computing professionals while also providing great opportunities for students from Maine to earn a good living and improve their world,” says Rheingans.

The award begins Oct. 15, 2022.

Contact: Sam Schipani,