Computer Science Faculty, Students Increase Focus on Mental Health Research

Professor Theresa Migler (CSSE)

As college students begin their learning experience in an environment different from anything they had previously known, many face challenges that affect them throughout their college careers. 

While some of these challenges are short term, others can negatively impact students’ mental health and potentially leave long-lasting effects. One professor and a group of students are hoping to change that.

There was a consensus among computer science Assistant Professor Theresa Migler’s students that there should be a greater focus on mental health in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

“My students have been researching the impact of social networks on mental health,” Migler said.

The social networks in these studies are defined by the groups of people an individual regularly spends time with. The research revolves around how positive social experiences can benefit students and boost their mental health.

Three of the mental health topics Migler’s students found the most interesting were that people with happy friends tend to be happier themselves; obesity spreads through social networks; and cancer survivors with strong social networks generally have better recovery outcomes.

“These studies prompted the students to question the state of the social network among students in the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department,” Migler said.

The project’s student lead Rachel Izenson (computer science) wanted to further explore why some students felt a social disconnect from their peers.

“I became interested in tackling mental health in the CSSE Department because I feel like mental health can be overlooked and misrepresented,” she said. “As my group-mates and I began discussing project ideas, we all bonded over the room for growth in our department regarding helping students feel like they belong.”

Izenson and her classmates hoped their research would allow for better resources and approaches to mental health in the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department that would appropriately target student needs.

“I think there are a lot of resources available to students in the College of Engineering, but throughout my college experience I wasn’t aware of them to their fullest extent,” she said. “I mainly heard about resources from friends or group chats rather than being presented with them at the beginning of the year or quarter.”

Previous groups of students from the same department have also conducted research on the state of students’ mental health.

“In a study conducted in 2020 and again in 2022 with computer science Professor Zoë Wood, Associate Professor Bruce DeBruhl and computer science and software engineering students, it was found that many students in the CSSE Department didn’t feel like they belonged,” Migler said.

Computer science graduate student Kylan Stewart researched the topic during her time at Cal Poly, surveying and studying students’ sense of belonging over two years.

Her work is documented in her thesis, “An Equity-Minded Assessment of Belonging Among Computing Students at Cal Poly,” and in the conference paper of the same name.

Stewart’s work was continued by student Jenisa Nguyen (computer science), who documented a third year of survey data in her senior project, “Sense of Belonging: Analysis of Computing Students at Cal

Poly through the Lens of Virtual Learning during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Utilizing NLP.”

To continue studying the patterns of mental health disparity among STEM students and further the research conducted by her peers, Izenson and her group-mates looked for the root of the problem and possible solutions.

“We believe the connectedness of students has an impact on their overall health and academic success,” she explained. “From our research group’s experience, we felt that we performed better academically when we had friends in our classes.”

Creating small changes to improve students’ quality of life can greatly impact their mental health over time and create a better learning and working environment, something important across all fields of study.

“While our research will primarily focus on the social network within the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department, we believe our survey and analysis can be used within other departments at Cal Poly to understand the social networks and the connectedness of their students,” Izenson said. “We are excited to begin gathering data and generating the social networks of students.”

By Taylor Villanueva