Computers drive modern life, and the need for employees who understand how they work is more important now than ever. Penny Rheingans, professor and director of the School of Computing and Information Science at the University of Maine, is dedicated to making computer science degrees accessible to students regardless of background.

Previous research has shown that socioeconomic factors such as income and family educational background affect student persistence in STEM subjects such as computer science, but research is lacking on how programs that combine academic support, mentoring, professional skills development, and service learning can help Students overcome these barriers.

Rheingans leads a team of UMaine faculty and staff dedicated to finding and tackling the barriers to computer science student success, 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 Professor of Extension.

This team recently received nearly $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a six-year project that will fund scholarships and support programs for 30 high-performing, full-time, low-income UMaine students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science . The resulting program is called the Computing Community for Good (CCG).

In the CCG program, first-year scholarship holders receive up to four years of scholarship funding and career changers up to three years. In addition to tuition support, the program will include a summer bridge program; faculty, peer and industry mentoring; academic and professional development activities; a living learning community; and seminars on first-year success, professional skills and leadership.

The project will support curriculum changes aimed at improving the career readiness of UMaine computer students in the program. As part of the program, students will also use their developing computer skills to improve local communities and beyond.

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

Meanwhile, researchers will examine perceptions of barriers students in the program have to pursuing computers in higher education, whether participants believe project activities can mitigate these barriers, and how support services and community support impact success affect the student. Through administrative data, focus groups, interviews with institutional stakeholders, and surveys of students, alumni, and institutional partners, this project aims to improve understanding of how post-secondary computing programs can alleviate the pressures placed on these students to improve their educational outcomes.

“Maine computer science students are more likely than students in most locations to come from low-income backgrounds, be from a rural high school, or be the first in their family to attend college. As a first-generation student, I am particularly aware of some of the additional challenges such students face. With this program we want to ensure that these students are just as successful 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 innovation critical to advancing Maine’s economy through engineering and computer science education. The initiative was made possible by a $75 million donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation and a matching $75 million donation for a total of $150 million.

“Increasing the number and diversity of computer science graduates is critical to Maine’s economy and communities. Last year there were over 1,000 computer job openings nationwide, but fewer than 300 computer graduates. This project will allow us to fill that need for more computer professionals while also providing Maine students with great opportunities to make a good living and improve their world,” says Rheingans.

The award begins on October 15, 2022.

Contact: Sam Schipani,