Pamplin faculty receives $617K NSF research grant

BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 13, 2004 – A research team led by faculty members from Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business has received a National Science Foundation grant of $617,000 to study the recruitment and retention of African-Americans in information technology-related graduate studies and jobs.

Wanda Smith, associate professor of management, will direct the three-year study. Project members include France Belanger, associate professor of accounting and information systems and director of the Center for Global E-Commerce, Vernard Harrington of Radford University, George Kasper of Virginia Commonwealth University, industry consultants, and student research assistants.

Smith said the project will study the factors behind an encouraging development in the 1990s — the number of African-Americans enrolling in and graduating from graduate and undergraduate IT programs rose significantly. Citing NSF figures, she said the number of undergraduate computer science degrees awarded to African-Americans, for example, rose 67 percent from 1,997 to 3,330 between 1991 and 2000 (the latest year for which these figures are available).

"This good news, however, should not obscure the fact that we need continuous improvement in the attraction and retention of African-Americans in IT," Smith said.

Moreover, Belanger said, in more recent years, general enrollments in computer science have declined — by almost 30 percent in the 2001-2004 period. (It is not known whether there is a corresponding decline in African-American enrollments.) "We need to learn more about the factors that drive recruitment and retention in the absence of a thriving job market, especially for underrepresented groups," she said.

Their project, Belanger said, will focus on the characteristics of African-Americans who succeed in IT career paths. It will examine the impact of rarely studied intrapersonal factors such as learning style, visual-spatial intelligence, and resilient personality as well as interpersonal factors such as mentoring and internships on African-Americans’ "job fit" perceptions.

Their multidisciplinary, culturally diverse research team, Belanger said, has developed a model that describes how students select, persist in, and graduate from IT programs and make the transition to the IT workplace, including faculty jobs at colleges and universities. The NSF grant will allow the researchers to test their model and its applicability to African-Americans.

The researchers will conduct three waves of surveys of the same group of participants — as college juniors and seniors, first-year graduate students, and first-year employees. They will develop an intervention/training program, Web groups, and practitioner-student mentorships.

Smith and Belanger said their study has potential practical benefits to the scientific, educational, and business communities, and society as a whole. The benefits include increasing African-American student awareness and attitudes about academic careers in IT, improving teaching methods that leverage African-American students’ visual-spatial intelligence, and improving the processes by which African-American IT workers will be trained, recruited, and retained.

"For the United States," Smith and Belanger observed, "employment of a qualified diverse workforce is both an economic and a social imperative. Economic global competition places a premium on the availability of a qualified diverse workforce. Studies have shown that diversity provides multiple perspectives and stimulates novelty, innovation, and evolution in both academe and industry."

To take academe as one example, they said, a loss of diversity "translates into myopic research pursuits, limited institutional creativity and innovation, and, ultimately, uniformity in shaping the future of society." Moreover, they said, "few careers offer individuals the return on investment that IT careers offer. For these reasons, increasing the number of African-Americans in the IT workforce is crucial."

Virginia Tech's nationally ranked Pamplin College of Business offers undergraduate and graduate programs in accounting and information systems, business information technology, economics, finance, hospitality and tourism management, management, and marketing. The college emphasizes the development of leadership skills and ethical values and the integration of technology in the academic curriculum, and prepares students for global business challenges through faculty-led study abroad programs. The college has research centers that focus on business leadership, electronic commerce, energy modeling, and wireless telecommunications. The college is committed to serving business and society through the expertise of its faculty, alumni, and students.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech’s eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.