Equitable computer science training in Sri Lanka, as well as around the world, is essential for personal empowerment, economic development, and global competitiveness in the challenges of the digital age.
Made possible by a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Grant from the IEEE Computer Society, the You Belong in CS (UBCS) program represents the belief that everyone, regardless of their background, gender, or location deserves an equal opportunity to thrive in the world of computer science and technology.
Project leader Chamika Sudusinghe and IEEE teams throughout Sri Lanka have instituted a program that represents their lasting commitment to equitable education, fosters community, and promotes gender diversity in the technology field.
“UBCS is more than a project; it’s a manifestation of my core values and aspirations,” Sudusinghe said.
The STEM workshop series
Part of the UBCS program, the immersive STEM workshop series is geared toward high school students in rural Sri Lanka, including the Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Gampaha, and Galle regions. More than 300 students received hands-on training with MicroBit & Maqueen kits that enabled them to build robots, participate in interactive projects, and conduct experiments.
The students, Sudusinghe said, viewed these efforts not just as an academic pursuit but as inspiring, potentially life-changing experiences, where no dream was too big. “The workshops became a beacon of hope, illuminating the dreams of students who had long yearned for opportunities. Their faces lit up as they grasped the potential of MicroBit kits,” he said.
Structured like a competition, teams composed of three members—each with two women—were faced with identifying and developing innovative technological solutions to address the challenges faced by Sri Lanka’s farming communities.
Winning teams created technological solutions for issues including soil monitoring and fertilizer application, greenhouse monitoring and control, and smart farming based on the Internet of Things (IoT).
“Code with WIE 2022 empowered students to make a tangible impact by combining technology and agriculture, ultimately contributing to a more sustainable future while championing the role of women in technology,” Sudusinghe said.
In a third project, UBCS supported IEEE Education Week Sri Lanka to successfully organize a STEM exhibition and a seminar on higher education pathways for students. This was a two-day celebration that highlighted the education resources, programs, and opportunities that IEEE can provide to learners.
The first day of the program focused on opportunities beyond the classroom and what it takes to become successful in technology. Day 2 brought featured speakers and panels with experts discussing their experiences and the future of the industry.
Growing Sri Lankan participation
With the goal of each of these events to expand diversity and inclusion in computer science, a measure of success came in the form of an increase in student IEEE chapters, Sudusinghe said. Prior to the UCBS workshops and programs, only seven Computer Society Student Branch chapters were established within IEEE Sri Lanka. However, after these events, the number of student branch chapters increased to 12. New chapters were established at the University of Vavuniya, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka, University of Ruhuna, National School of Business Management, and Gen. Sir John Kotelawala Defence University.
In addition, events like the one held by IEEE Adaharaya helped to fuel interest in the Computer Society community. In collaboration with the IEEE Sri Lanka Section Student Activities Committee, the IEEE Sri Lanka Section Computer Society Chapter organized an awareness program about the IEEE Computer Society to inspire universities to establish Computer Society student branch chapters. The program concluded with the participation of more than 1,500 students across 21 universities.
Sudusinghe expects the momentum generated by UBCS will lead to the establishment of additional IEEE Computer Society Student Branch Chapters by the end of 2023, and that the effects of the endeavor will continue to inspire students.
“Project UBCS was executed with remarkable success, not only achieving its intended objectives but also forging valuable collaborations,” he said. “Also, collaboration has been key; when we collaborate with other organizations that share similar visions and objectives, we have the potential to surpass our targets and create an even more profound positive impact on society.”
Others involved with the project concurred. “The financial support graciously provided by the IEEE Computer Society played a pivotal role in enabling the widespread sharing of knowledge and expertise. This support has been instrumental in achieving our outreach goals and strengthening the presence of the IEEE Computer Society across the country,” Mohamed Shakeel, Chair, IEEE Adaharaya, said.
“I extend heartfelt gratitude to the IEEE Computer Society Diversity & Inclusion Fund for their pivotal support in Code with WIE 2022. This event not only empowered young women in technology but also opened up an environment for them to develop smart technological solutions for sustainable agriculture. The support elevated the competition’s quality, offering invaluable resources and mentorship. It was a beacon of hope, nurturing the dreams of young women in technology,” Dr. Akila Wijethunge, Chair, IEEE Sri Lanka Section WIE Affinity Group 2022 said.