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Researchers Get $500,000 NSF Grant to Promote Diversity in High-Tech Fields

Debra Major

Since 2002, Old Dominion University researchers have been chipping away at a problem besetting today's high technology workforce--relatively few women and minorities are holding down these high-paying jobs.

A new $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will extend the work through 2012.

A primary goal is to promote outside-the-classroom activities that can invest a student in the field he or she has chosen to pursue. As the new project unfolds, the researchers hope to pinpoint why some students do not engage in professional networking and other similar activities. They also want to determine if there are differences in the way men and women or African-Americans and whites respond to professional development opportunities outside the formal classroom.

A 2002 grant from the NSF allowed ODU researchers in psychology and business to probe the workforce practices of information technology (IT) companies. That project produced a list of recommendations about how companies could better recruit and retain underrepresented portions of the population. The gist of their message: an IT employer who wants to hire and retain more women and African Americans should take unambiguous action to create an inclusive workplace environment that accommodates diversity and promotes equal opportunity.

On the strength of that research, the NSF awarded a second grant in 2004 to original members of the ODU research team and to a scientist from Norfolk State University. Their proposal was to study how to keep women and underrepresented minorities from dropping out of computer science programs. That project produced a new type of introductory class for computer science majors that better prepared them with realistic previews of challenges in the major as well as coping skills to address them. Computer science faculty teaching introductory programming courses received diversity training and incorporated innovative practices such as "pair programming" into their courses.

The latest grant, which brings to $1.7 million the amount NSF has invested in the work, continues the collaboration between ODU and NSU. But it extends the scope of the research to include not only computer science, but also engineering.

Debra Major, the ODU professor of psychology who led the initial NSF project, is again a principal investigator, joining with Karin Orvis, ODU assistant professor of psychology. Their collaborators are Sandra Deloatch, dean of the college of science, engineering and technology at NSU, who was also an investigator on the 2004 grant, and Rasha Morsi, associate professor of electronics engineering at NSU.

Three other ODU faculty members are consultants for the project, Linda Vahalla, associate dean of engineering, Janet Brunelle, assistant chair of computer science, and J. Matt Henson, assistant professor of psychology.

"The purpose of the last grant was to look at the classroom climate and coping issues, and at interventions that can improve inclusiveness in the computer science classroom," Major said. "We wanted to give all students an equal sense of belonging."

The special computer science introductory course that evolved from the 2005 grant proved to be a "realistic preview" of the program, and students who took it were more likely to stick with the major, Major said.

"Still, we recognize that not everything important to attracting and retaining good students in these fields happens in the classroom."

Major said the researchers believed that the more engaged students become in outside-the-classroom activities related to their technology majors, the more they "feel a professional identity." The researchers, she said, want students who will be the subject of the upcoming research project to advance to the point as soon as possible where they can say, "I am a computer scientist." Or, "I am an engineer."

Activities that might promote professional identity could included participating in student professional societies, Major said, or this might mean developing relationships with mentors, serving internships or entering competitions.

The researchers believed that these activities could help retain underrepresented populations in difficult STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and last year a pilot survey made possible by seed money from ODU showed that they were onto something.

"We thought data from a pilot project could be supportive of our grant proposal, and it was. We were fortunate to have gotten the seed money," Major said. She credited Mohammad Karim, the ODU vice president for research, and Chris Platsoucas, dean of the College of Sciences, with supporting the research team by pulling together about $10,000 in tight budget times to fund the pilot survey.

"I think this $500,000 grant is a fine return on the small investment we made in this project," said Platsoucas. "Seed funds for projects that help our faculty members obtain new grants are among the best spent funds in the college."

The pilot survey has resulted in a paper, "Increasing Diversity in STEM Through Professional Development Activities," that will be presented next spring at the national conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. In addition to Major and Orvis, the authors of the paper are two of Major's graduate research assistants, Jonathan Holland and Valerie Morganson.

"Research indicates that participating in capitalization activities is influenced by environmental supports and barriers, which men and women experience differently," according to the paper. "There is also evidence that the inclusiveness of an organization plays a key role in shaping the experiences of women and minorities in STEM" fields.

The pilot survey explored the differences in the ways primarily white institutions (PWIs) such as ODU and historically black institutions (HBIs) such as NSU might facilitate or hinder engagement in activities that help students capitalize on professional development opportunities.

Responses from focus groups involving more than 60 students at the two universities showed, for example, that HBIs provide a supportive environment with informal faculty-student relationships that seems to be especially conducive to outside-the-classroom professional development.

Another finding of the pilot survey cast most female students as being reluctant to capitalize on networking opportunities that are dominated by males.

With the new NSF funding, the researchers will begin in January to conduct more elaborate studies at ODU and NSU to get more data on how computer science and engineering students can be encouraged to capitalize on outside-the-classroom activities. Strategies will be evaluated according to how they apply to gender, academic major, and PWI versus HBI environments.

Over the course of the grant, the researchers propose a longitudinal assessment of how their strategies play out. The researchers want to know if training computer science and engineering students as freshmen to seek extracurricular development opportunities will help them develop a professional identity that follows them through their academic training and into the workforce.

Major said that traditional research on coping strategies for women and minorities in STEM focuses on challenges, "on emphasizing that these are difficult majors." Now, she believes, the team can share some good news with STEM students, namely, "There are real professional opportunities for you out there and you can capitalize on them."

Here is a breakdown of the grants received for this STEM work:

• Major, D. A., principal investigator, Davis, D. D., Sanchez-Hucles, J., & Mann, J., co-investigators (June 2002 - June 2005). "Climate for Opportunity and Inclusion: Improving the Recruitment, Retention and Advancement of Women and Minorities in IT." National Science Foundation, $497,257.

• Davis, D. D., principal investigator, Major, D. A., Sanchez-Hucles, J., & DeLoatch, S., co-investigators (August 2004 - August 2008). "Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment: Enhancing Retention of Women and Minorities in Computer Science." National Science Foundation, $733,520.

• Major, D. A., principal investigator, Orvis, K. L., DeLoatch, S., & Morsi, R., co-investigators (January 2010-January 2013). "GSE/RES-Collaborative Research: Capitalizing on Opportunity: Narrowing the Gender Divide in Engineering and Computer Science through Professional Development." National Science Foundation, $500,000.

This article was posted on: September 17, 2009

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