This article is published in the May 2010 issue.

The STARS Alliance: A Viable Approach to Broadening Participation in Computing


The STARS Alliance is a consortium of regional partnerships among 20 colleges and universities and more than 80 regional partners in academia, education, business and community organizations, with a mission to broaden participation in computing. The flagship initiative of the Alliance is the STARS Leadership Corps (SLC), a multi-year curricular or cocurricular experience for computing students based on the STARS core values of civic engagement and service, leadership, technical excellence, and community. The SLC engages students in research, service and outreach projects through which they recruit, develop, and become the next generation of computing professionals. This article describes the SLC model and reports the results of our study to evaluate its impact on computing students.

Theoretical Rationale and Empirical Support for the SLC Model

The SLC model has a strong theoretical foundation, and was designed to incorporate best practices in student success, particularly for under-represented students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The SLC model is grounded in Astin’s Involvement Theory (Astin et al, 2000), which posits that student engagement is a key mediator of retention and academic success. Student engagement occurs through their engagement with the subject matter or curriculum of a discipline; their engagement with faculty and staff in an academic unit; their engagement in student life and co-curricular activities, and their engagement with other students, especially students who share certain characteristics or interests. The SLC model combines pedagogies of engagement by creating learning communities focused on research, service and outreach. While these pedagogies of engagement have been shown to be effective for all types of students across all disciplines, there is evidence that they are particularly effective for under-represented and at-risk students in STEM disciplines.

Another variable consistently associated with success of under-represented STEM students is self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as a judgment about one’s ability to organize and execute the courses of action necessary to attain a specific goal or outcome. Self-efficacy influences behavior through goal choice, effort, and persistence. Research has shown that students with high STEM self-efficacy have better academic performance and retention in STEM disciplines than students with lower STEM self-efficacy. Several studies have reported gender differences, favoring men, in STEM self-efficacy, and also in the probability of success in STEM-related fields.

In summary, there is considerable empirical and anecdotal evidence supporting the importance of engagement, perceived social relevance, and self-efficacy for under-represented students in STEM disciplines. The SLC is a learning community designed to enhance student engagement with the computing faculty, the computing curriculum, and other students who share common characteristics. The SLC also seeks to enhance students’ engagement with their discipline by increasing the discipline’s social relevance through service and outreach projects.

The SLC Model

Students are enrolled or re-enrolled in the SLC each spring and begin their participation in August at an alliance-wide student leadership conference called the STARS Celebration. Students attend the four-day conference as part of a home-team cohort from their school. The conference prepares students to undertake Leadership Projects during the upcoming academic year as part of the SLC at their school, which includes from 5 to 25 undergraduates and up to 10 graduate students, organized into single or multiple SLC teams.

Leadership Projects are the centerpiece of the SLC and provide many opportunities for applied, socially relevant, mastery experiences. Leadership Projects catalyze regional partnerships by engaging students in outreach to K-12 schools and community organizations, often in partnership with computing professionals who are volunteers. For example, SLC teams do Road Show presentations to middle and high school students to convey the breadth and excitement of computing. Teams also create socially relevant websites for non-profit organizations or assist computing professionals and faculty in delivering after-school and weekend computing camps for kids. The structure produces “stair-step” role models within a vertical community spanning K-12, higher education, and the workforce.

STARS institutions implement the SLC as either a curricular (e.g., credit-bearing service learning course) or co-curricular program (e.g., to fulfill program or departmental service requirements). In either case, the SLC serves to put a common wrapper around a diverse array of Leadership Projects, many of which are existing programs that have been enhanced by the addition of college students. The common wrapper includes a seminar series addressing the STARS core values, an outreach/service component consisting of Leadership Project teams, a written component (written reflections on service activities), and an oral component (presentations as part of outreach or to disseminate outreach outcomes).

The SLC seminar series is the curricular component that supports the Leadership Projects and student teams. Each STARS institution offers the seminar as a credit-bearing course or as a co-curricular activity required for all SLC students. Topics covered include team effectiveness and project management training, technical skills development, “soft leadership” skills, and formal and informal communications. The SLC seminar series also builds community and engagement by bringing undergraduate students, graduate students, computing faculty and professionals together regularly for face-to-face interactions.

Evaluation and Impact of the SLC

Evaluation of the SLC involves tracking of SLC participants’ academic performance over time; monitoring the numbers of K-12 and college students impacted by their outreach; tracking the numbers of SLC students who continue with computing graduate programs and careers; and measuring how their attitudes change throughout the course of their participation. Specifically, we are tracking variables known to be associated with the success of STEM students, including self-efficacy, sense of community, perceived social relevance, and commitment to computing. Our four-year study results show:

  • The SLC has successfully attracted participants from under-represented student groups: half are female (yearly averages between 46% and 58%); half are African American (yearly averages between 43% and 53%). More than 700 college students have participated in the SLC since 2006, with more than half participating for multiple years; about 75% of these are undergraduates and 25% are graduate students.
  • SLC students are helping to build the computing pipeline through outreach to K-12 and college students, and to date have reached more than 18,000 K-12 students through summer camps, mentoring, after-school programs, and recruiting events at over 40 locations across the southeast.
  • STARS Alliance institutions have outperformed the national average in computing enrollments and graduation, particularly in encouraging undergraduates to continue on to graduate school. For example, STARS original PhD-granting Alliance universities experienced higher graduate enrollment increases (32.93% Alliance; -2.2% national) and graduate graduation increases (22.38% Alliance; -.985% national) for the two-year time frame between 2005-06 and 2007-08.1
  • Alliance-wide evaluation supports the effectiveness of the SLC model at impacting variables known to be associated with the success of STEM students. For example, outcomes show a statistically significant increase in self-efficacy, sense of community, perceived social relevance, GPA and commitment to computing for undergraduate students.

In summary, the SLC model of broadening participation in computing is showing many positive benefits for computing students and programs. It is a model well-grounded in theory and research, and has flexible elements that can be adapted in whole or in part by others seeking to enhance student success and to attract and retain under-represented students in computing. It also helps to build the pipeline for a future generation of diverse computing students through its outreach to K-12.

Participating Institutions and Other Alliance Activities

The STARS Alliance was established in 2006 with support by the National Science Foundation Broadening Participation in Computing program (Awards 0540523 and 0739216) with ten members; it now has twenty: Auburn University, Florida A&M University, Florida State University, Georgia Tech, Landmark College, Meredith College, North Carolina State University, Spelman College, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, University of South Florida Polytechnic, Johnson C. Smith University, Georgia Southern University, Hampton University, North Carolina A&T University, Shaw University, St. Augustine’s College, University of New Orleans, University of South Carolina, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Virginia Tech.2 These members comprise: eight HBCUs, two serving women; one community college; and nine research universities. Regional partners include K-12 schools, Girl Scouts, the Black Data Processors Association, public libraries, and Citizen Schools.

All members participate in core Alliance activities, including the STARS Celebration, the SLC, and projects that aim to demonstrate effective practices for BPC. The latter include Tiered Mentoring (have a mentor, be a mentor), Pair Programming (pair-learning in programming courses), and Culturally Situated Design Tools (using cultural artifacts to engage middleschoolers in computing). To date, we have hosted four annual STARS celebrations which have attracted over 775 attendees to participate in a range of workshops and presentations on BPC, technical research, and professional development. Our partners include the CRA-W, which hosts student mentoring workshops and faculty mentoring workshops at the Celebration, the latter particularly designed to advance faculty who serve as BPC-role models.


The Alliance website is Institutions wanting to participate in the SLC are invited to attend the 2010 STARS Celebration Email Karen Bean,, for travel scholarship information. A. W. Astin, L. J. Vogelgesang, E.K. Ikeda, & J. A. Yee, “How Service Learning Affects Students.” Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, University of California, 2000.

The authors are all with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Kim Buch is Associate Professor of Psychology. Audrey Rorrer is research scientist for the Diversity in Information Technology Institute (DITI) at UNC Charlotte. Teresa Dahlberg is Professor of Computer Science and Director of the DITI. Tiffany Barnes is Assistant Professor of Computer Science. Buch, Rorrer and Barnes are the STARS Alliance evaluators, and Dahlberg is Alliance Director. Dahlberg and Barnes are principal and co-principal investigator for the STARS Alliance grants.

End Notes:

1 We compare the five original STARS institutions that are PhD-granting universities (UNC Charlotte, North Carolina State University, Auburn University, Florida State University, and Georgia Tech) to the most recent national numbers available from the Taulbee 2008 survey for PhD-granting universities.

2 In August 2009, Landmark Community College withdrew due to internal institutional changes, and Central Piedmont Community College of North Carolina joined the Alliance.


The STARS Alliance: A Viable Approach to Broadening Participation in Computing