Researchers awarded $2.4 million to engage females in information technology careers

Elizabeth Creamer (left) and Peggy S. Meszaros

Elizabeth Creamer (left) and Peggy S. Meszaros

BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 21, 2008 – Two Virginia Tech researchers have been awarded a 2.4 million dollar grant by the National Science Foundation to investigate ways to engage females in information technology career fields in five states -- Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia.

This five-year project, “Appalachian Information Technology Extension Services (AITES),” is led by Peggy S. Meszaros, director of the Center for Technology Impacts on Children, Youth and Families, and Elizabeth Creamer, professor in the university’s School of Education. AITES is a comprehensive, research-based Extension program of training and consulting services that seeks to promote underserved females’ interest in jobs requiring information technology skills.

Despite efforts to recruit women to computer-based fields, studies conducted by the same Virginia Tech professors show that skilled females with an interest in technology consistently disregard the area and also express less confidence in their abilities. According to Meszaros, “Factors shown to deter young women from viewing IT as a career choice include lack of encouragement from parents, gender stereotypical views held by parents and teachers, stereotypical views about the nature of IT-work, lack of opportunities to use computers in creative and collaborative ways, and having few trusted or credible sources of IT-related information.”

“The convergence of needs and policies designed to promote economic development creates the ideal context to implement the AITES project,” said Creamer. She explained that in many states, technology courses are not part of the curriculum at any level. An effort to recruit and retain women in IT necessitates building broad-based, community-oriented early intervention programs that are grounded in local norms and values. In Appalachia, there are unique groups that are both underserved and underrepresented, including middle and high school-age girls. They live in rural counties that are without sizable cities and towns to provide commercial, industrial, educational, and transportation hubs, or self-sustaining tax bases. These trends occur simultaneously with the creation of public policies meant to implement domestic in-sourcing strategies and the relocation of information technology-based companies into poor rural areas to develop workforce capabilities.

“The AITES project links community-oriented efforts in workforce development, educational outreach, and economic development to connect and support local students’ entry into local information technology jobs,” said Meszaros. “This emphasis forms the basis of the relationship between AITES and the selected Appalachian communities.”

Counties participating in the AITES project were selected because of a balance of both need and existing infrastructure to support the development of interest in information technology jobs. Four criteria used to select participating counties were

  1. The presence of major information technology industry partners committed to the developing a viable local workforce;
  2. The presence of existing infrastructure, including agencies promoting economic development in the region and nonprofit organizations;
  3. The evidence of prior or existing efforts to promote interest in science, engineering, and technology (SET), particularly in information technology; and
  4. The presence of individuals and agencies invested in becoming active committed partners in the project. Each county includes information technology industries invested in workforce development. For example, executives representing Conseillers en Gestion et Informatique (CGI) Group Inc., Canada's largest information technology services company, and Northrop Grumman have agreed to serve on the AITES Virginia Partners Advisory Board.

A national Pioneer Partners Board -- comprised of information technology companies, state and local education administrators, national information technology professional organizations, information technology journalists and the National 4-H office -- will guide implementation of the project. State Partner Boards, formed in each of the five participating states, will oversee implementation in their selected counties.

The AITES approach will provide Community Cohort Teams comprised of school counselors, information technology teachers, Family and Consumer Science and 4-H Extension agents, and community development professionals the tools they need to increase interest among middle and high school girls in jobs requiring these skills. In Virginia the Community Cohort Teams will also include Career Coaches from the Community College System. AITES will provide professional development and team-building opportunities to help them work with parents, industry partners, teachers, and counselors in the schools, and community members associated with nonprofit agencies that work in the community. The teams from all states will be able to interact through the AITES Internet Portal and in annual face-to-face meetings.

Since its founding in October 2001, the Center for Information Technology Impacts on Children, Youth and Families has raised over 5 million dollars in research funding from external sources, including the National Science Foundation, the Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation, and the Department of Education. This funding has provided support for numerous graduate students, national and international conference presentations and papers, and growing visibility for its research. The center has worked to expand partnerships and center affiliates, and has garnered industry support.