College of Engineering News Room

Flit-Path Improves Pathways to Student Success for Computing Majors at USF, UCF, and FIU

Flitpath classroom meeting

The Flit-Path program was created in 2017 to improve the academic success of talented computing students with financial need at Florida’s three metropolitan research universities.

by Russell Nay

Since the middle of the Spring 2020 semester, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged students, faculty members, and researchers at universities across the country to adapt to working, learning, and teaching remotely.

For faculty mentors and investigators at USF, UCF and FIU behind the Flit-Path program, that meant adapting career development events, mentoring, and research opportunities to meet the needs of current Flit-Path students trying to navigate much of their computing degrees online.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the S-STEM Flit-Path (Florida IT Pathways) program provides scholarships, curricular support, and co-curricular resources and activities to academically talented computing students with financial need in computer science, information technology, and computer engineering at FIU, UCF, and USF.

In 2012, collaborative efforts between schools and departments of computer engineering and computer science across the three universities began through a Targeted Educational Attainment (TEAm) grant awarded from the Florida Board of Governors. Over the next five years and with the formation of the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Universities, USF, UCF and FIU increased their combined number of computing graduates by about 70%.

The Flit-Path program — funded by the National Science Foundation — advanced this collaboration. Since the program’s inception in early 2017, faculty leadership from each of the three universities have shared data with each other on the progress and feedback of program students, as well as how the program is evolving at each university.

Flit-Path USF principal investigator and Department of Computer Science and Engineering Professor Ken Christensen said that program leadership have Zoom meetings twice a week and coordinate on strategies to improve the program.

“We also have some events that are cross institution,” Christensen said. “In early November we had a very successful Zoom-based graduate school recruiting event between the three institutions.”

USF co-principal investigator and Professor Rafael Perez said that the collaborative nature of the program has allowed program leadership at USF, UCF and FIU to jointly benefit.

“Interactions between the three universities have been very productive,” Perez said. “They learn from us, and we learn from then. It’s been a great team to have.”

Christensen said that at the end of the program, each university will have provided over $1 million in scholarships to students earning computing degrees until 2021. Program leadership plans for 36 students to receive $5,000 a year for each of the four years of their education at USF. An additional 115 students will have received $2,440 during their senior year.

“The idea is that the scholarship replaces the need to work a part-time service job in the fall and spring,” he said. “Now this time can be spent on academics instead.”

Former Women in Computer Science and Engineering (WiCSE) at USF President and Spring 2020 computer science graduate Catherine Giraldo-Carrillo said the Flit-Path scholarship made a big difference in completing her last two semesters. Giraldo-Carrillo joined the program in Fall 2019 as a Cohort B student.

“At that point it was literally what I needed,” she said. “In my last semester I realized I’d have to borrow money to pay for classes. I quit my full-time job to focus full-time on my education, but I still had the responsibility of caring for my mom and dad when they were both hospitalized for various health reasons.”

Some of her closest friends were Flit-Path students, and she’d benefitted from adding classmates in WiCSE and Flit-Path to the academic support group she’d built throughout her program. They helped Giraldo-Carrillo through barriers she faced in her classes, including an initial sense of impostor syndrome toward being a computing professional as well as difficult course assignments.

Giraldo-Carrillo is currently a technologist-engineer at Jacksonville-based bank technology service provider FIS. Influential professors and their passion for teaching inspired her to plan for a master’s program in computer science so she could teach in the future.

Flit-Path students also attend networking events and talks with computing industry professionals as part of the program. Information technology senior and Phi Beta Kappa inductee Alexander Palasek said he thinks he would’ve never had the opportunity to meet some of the tech industry leaders he’s talked to since he joined the program as a Cohort A student in Spring 2017.

“These were some of the most memorable events we attended,” he said. “Meeting with people in the industry and meeting with grad students who could tell us what grad school was like was indispensable. If I weren’t in this program I wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity, and I’d have no idea what those worlds were like. It’d be like an opaque box.”

One of these networking opportunities was a look into the work of USF alum Ransford Hyman, a former Intel AI Technical Lead and Deep Learning Software Engineering Manager. Hyman discussed the typical responsibilities of an Intel Tech Lead and current projects with attending Flit-Path students, as well as advice and interview tips for pursuing a career with a Silicon Valley company.

Giraldo-Carrillo attended one networking event at the St. Petersburg office of Tampa Bay-based investment company Raymond James, where she shadowed one of the company’s tech security teams for the day and did a Q&A with the team. She was offered a job application reference for a related position afterward.

“They brought me into their offices, and I got to talk to everybody on the team about what they do,” she said. “It was awesome seeing what they do in a workday, and I could see myself doing this.”

Palasek said he’s considering a master’s program upon graduating after he attended a Flit-Path grad school showcase and discussed his academic path with Christensen, who works alongside assigned faculty mentors to help Flit-Path students find success during and after their programs.

Of the 145 students who’ve been involved in the Flit-Path program at USF since 2017, only 17 have left the program before graduating. One left due to low academic performance, and the other 16 former Flit-Path students no longer needed financial aid, joined a branch of the military, accepted a full-time job, changed their major, or transferred schools.

An FIU-led study using data from the three universities showed that activities focusing on student success outside the classroom — such as research and internship opportunities — help computing students build a sense of identity in their programs, which has a significant impact on retention. Other key program elements include the student selection process and splitting students into cohorts.

The Flit-Path program has had a measurable impact on the success of USF students underrepresented in the computing field. In the USF Department of Computer Science and Engineering overall, around 42% of students are Black, Hispanic, and women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Comparatively, 54% of USF Flit-Path students are Black, Hispanic, and women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Currently, all program events have been moved online since Spring 2020 to keep students socially distant. However, Christensen said that many students have been quick to adapt to the new virtual Flit-Path activities due to their strong backgrounds with online tools and the professional norm of remote work in computing careers.

Flitpath USF zoom meeting

Flit-Path students met virtually throughout the Spring 2020 semester, including a virtual career fair at USF with Flit-Path graduates as panelists.

Educational research nonprofit WestEd independently produces a yearly qualitative and quantitative report on Flit-Path’s progress in meeting its core goals of student recruitment, retention and co-curricular success across all three participating universities. This includes feedback from cohort students on what they expect from their programs and common challenges they’re facing, as well as a breakdown of all current program activities’ effectiveness.

This spring, WestEd reported that computing students at all three universities faced a number of academic and personal challenges with adapting to distance learning, unstable employment and social isolation during the pandemic. After meeting with program students to better understand the impact on students’ academic progress and well-being, Flit-Path leadership dispersed additional grants to active Flit-Path students and are updating the program’s activities for future semesters.