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At the Intersection: Community Engagement & Careers in CS Social Impact

Written By: Ajula Van Ness-Otunnu, MET H.S. Intern

At the Intersection is a three-part series of articles focused on how the intersection between social change and computer science through Brown’s curriculum, community engagement and career tracks, and student advocacy gives students the opportunities to understand and practice humanitarian work in their CS education.

“The best thing about Brown students is to hear all of the multidisciplinary work they are doing,” says Lynsey Ford, Program Manager for Academic Engagement at Brown University’s Swearer Center.

The Swearer Center has made community partnerships and social innovation an integral part of their mission. At the intersection of social change and computer science, Brown’s Swearer Center in collaboration with the CS Department produces academically well-rounded students, prepared for making a positive social impact by way of their education.

The CS Department currently engages in a variety of outreach programs including the Artemis Project, IgniteCS, Robot Block Party and Bootstrap to expose K-12 students from historically underrepresented groups (HUGs) to CS. Brown University defines HUGs as those who self-identify as American Indian, Alaskan Native, African American, Hispanic or Latinx, and Native Hawaiian and/or Pacific Islander. The Artemis Project was founded in 1996 with a mission to advance diversity and inclusion in CS by providing a five-week, hands-on summer program to 25 rising 9th graders of underrepresented genders in STEM. The Brown IgniteCS Initiative provides after-school and weekend coding clubs to Providence-area public school students including: Classical High School, Nathan Bishop Middle School, and Central Falls Middle School. The RI Robot Block Party is an annual exhibition open to the public, founded in 2014 by the Rhode Island Students of the Future in partnership with the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative and the Department of Computer Science with the goal to connect industry, community organizations, universities, and K-12 schools. The Bootstrap programs provide training and curriculum development to K-12 teachers and partners with Brown to offer a variety of summer teacher training classes in Rhode Island with the hopes to increase exposure to CS in STEM classrooms. For more information on how to get involved with these initiatives as a mentor, teacher, student, or community partner, visit their websites.

These outreach efforts are often informed and supported by the Swearer Center, which provides valuable connections to the state community. Being located in the small state of Rhode Island it is important for Brown’s community to not isolate itself. “Working with the Swearer Center is very important to help us make connections that utilize our academic skills to benefit different communities,” says Ugur.   

Engaged Scholars and Bonner Community Fellows are connected to community organizations and leaders through The Swearer Center that upholds a reciprocal relationship in work between students and communities. The Bonner Community Fellows program uses community engagement to inform academic and community goals of students. Students go into the programs with strong backgrounds in ethical community work. Bonner Fellows apply as entering freshmen with the intention to commit to the program for the entirety of their undergraduate studies, while Engaged Scholars apply as sophomores when they declare their concentration.  “When they come into the program our work enhances the understanding they already have through the lens of a community partner. We ask them to utilize their discipline to aid a community issue because multidisciplinary work just makes tackling challenging problems better,” says Lynsey.

Community engagement work also prepares students for social impact careers. Students in these programs, such as Bilal Lafta ‘20, utilize the skills honed at the Swearer Center in their CS career pursuits. Through the Rhode Island community relationships he made at the center, the opportunities afforded to him by Brown, and his passion for education combined with CS, Bilal interned at the Governor’s Office of Innovation to create a database to alert every school in Rhode Island of CS related professional development (PD)  teacher training opportunities. These PD sessions aid teachers to effectively integrate CS into their curriculum. Bilal’s investment in this initiative stemmed from his adjustment to university level CS after having few CS courses at his public high school. When reflecting on his hands-on learning experience at the Governor’s Office Bilal says, “a lesson I learned that summer was how CS is simply a tool that can be applied to any industry, any field, or any social justice issue.”

The application of CS to social justice and industry work can also be found in the CS Department’s Industry Partners Program (IPP) nonprofit/social good track to help diversify job opportunities for students. Students are given the chance to interview with prominent CS companies and hear the perspective of their employees. The nonprofit track of the IPP includes partnerships with Govern for America, Teach for America, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, RI Department of Education, and Allen Institute for AI.

Classwork and community involvement gives Brown CS students the foundational  understanding of working in the CS field, but internships fully develop this understanding, says Ugur. “Recently, to create a social impact track as part of [the IPP] we have waived the membership fee for nonprofits and companies doing social impact work. We are trying to get the students to see the diverse job options for when they graduate,” says Ugur. Brown CS graduates are afforded many opportunities to utilize their CS education to fulfill a wide range of societal needs.

The department's acknowledgement of the diverse opportunities for CS students upon graduation is noticed by students like Bilal. “The CS department is recognizing more and more that the study of CS can uniquely intersect with many different industries, hence the partnerships with nonprofits. I think the next step is to strengthen those relationships and shift the culture in the CS department where we are empowering students that want to work for a non-tech company after studying CS,” says Bilal.

Brown CS supports students to engage with communities outside of the university in a multitude of ways including internships and understanding of potential career paths related to humanitarian work. By fostering community partnerships and facilitating exposure to potential career paths Brown CS empowers students to graduate informed community members. The Diversity Committee Student Advocates for Diversity and Inclusion are another example of empowered and informed community members exercising their voice/impact on CS culture.

The department is engaged in inward-facing community engagement through these student advocates.

For the next article in this series: Diversity and Inclusion Student Advocates: Insight from Students.