Undergraduate Students Make the Most of Their Educational Opportunities Through CS STARS

5/24/2022 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

The CS Student Ambassador/Research Scholars group (CS STARS) offered Melissa Chen, Vasu Chalasani and 25 other undergraduate students an encouraging space for women interested in undergraduate research and departmental outreach, engagement, and recruitment.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

As a senior Illinois Computer Science major, Melissa Chen took a winding road to her current research and educational emphasis that delves into the way computers can impact education.

Melissa Chen, shown here in front of her computer during time spent with the CS STARS group.
Melissa Chen, shown here in front of her computer during time spent with the CS STARS group.

In fact, it took until this year, when she joined the CS Student Ambassador/Research Scholars group, or CS STARS, for Chen to realize her specific inspiration within the computing field. This, she said, has brought a renewed excitement behind her purpose, as she graduates in May and soon thereafter enters graduate school.

Chen first pursued interests at the intersection of computing – specifically Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) – with medicine/biology and, later, crop sciences. Still, she couldn’t identify how the work truly engaged with her motivations.

“While I enjoyed all the areas I studied, I became interested in computing because it can impact all aspects of our lives,” Chen said. “The work in AI and ML was really interesting, but I wondered if it had enough of a human aspect to it. I was optimizing the system little, by ever so little, but was I actually improving somebody’s life? I couldn’t find the answer to that.”

Then she joined CS STARS, a group here within Illinois CS dedicated to forming a community of women interested in pursuing undergraduate computer science research as well as departmental engagement, outreach, and recruitment.

Through the group’s weekly meetings, Chen got to know PhD student and BPC Fellow Kathleen Isenegger. They conversed about this lack of connection, and soon Nancy M. Amato – Abel Bliss Professor and Department Head, who also has a leadership role with STARS – introduced Chen to Illinois CS professor Brian Bailey.

His research group, ORCHID, opens opportunities for undergraduate researchers to explore Interactive Computing to influence “design, creativity, and innovation processes.”

“Professor Bailey and my graduate student mentor, Wendy Shi, provided mentorship and patience, which helped me feel involved,” Chen said. “I became a part of their lab community, and I went to their lab meetings. I felt like I could understand how my passion for computing could make a difference. 

“This has been huge for me, and it never would’ve happened without CS STARS, the mentorship of professor Amato and the BPC Fellows – who have all been absolutely amazing to me.”

When CS STARS began before the start of this academic year, this was the exact type of interaction those organizing it hoped to inspire. 

Group picture of the CS STARS in a hallway within the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science. 18 students are pictured together.
Members of the CS STARS group pictured together within the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science.

It is supported by a grant through the Center for Inclusive Computing (CIC) at Northeastern University, which aims to increase the number of women graduating with undergraduate degrees in computing by 10 percent. This is part of the significant effort Illinois CS has put forth in a strategic initiative called Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC).

“I’m so proud of the way this department – from our dedicated faculty to the students and staff – has furthered our approach to BPC,” said Amato. “The premise that a more diverse and inclusive computing environment creates more energetic and robust academic opportunities is becoming a reality here. A great example of that is CS STARS, which I am so excited we have been able to launch this year.

“Throughout the course of this academic year, I’ve witnessed first-hand that the BPC Fellows have worked together with the CS STARS to create an incredibly supportive community for these 27 students.”

That encouraging environment came through weekly meetings. The program is designed to:

  • Provide students with a stipend for their commitment of about 10 hours per week 
  • Enable students to conduct research with and be mentored by a CS faculty member (6-7 hours a week) 
  • Offer opportunities for students to develop leadership skills through designing and participating  in recruiting, mentoring, and cohort building activities (3-4 hours a week)
  • Match participants of the CS STARS team, based on their application materials, with Illinois CS faculty members who would be a good fit for supporting each participant’s research and personal goals 
  • Create additional opportunities for CS STARS to delve into research; for example, access to the CS Summer REU program

“When we formed the first CS STARS class, I hoped that it would become a space where everyone felt comfortable,” Isenegger said. “I hoped that everyone would feel comfortable sharing their struggles and that others would want to give what they could – their advice, time, or knowledge – to help each other overcome the challenges they encountered.

“Looking back on the past year, I believe that giving each student space to build relationships with one another is one of the most valuable aspects of CS STARS.”

Once the students found a comfort level, their growth opportunities provided an impact in many ways – as evidenced by Vasu Chalasani.

A second-year CS major, Chalasani said the most eye-opening experience for her within the CS STARS group came from a leadership role with the Imagine Family STEM Night. She and a few other STARS members, planned for a day’s worth of coding activities designed to engage and inform a group of high school and middle school aged students from underrepresented communities in computing. 

“The whole experience made me look at CS in a different way, because I had to break down the concepts in a way that was digestible for younger ages,” Chalasani said. “This gave me a new perspective, and it helped me understand how best to relate to others through computing. We tried to make it more visual and fun for the students.

“These kinds of events through STARS show me what a great place Illinois CS is for people in STEM, especially for women in STEM.”

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This story was published May 24, 2022.