NSF Grant to Help Identify New Teaching Methods to Retain Women in Computing and IT

Dr. Lecia Barker, research associate professor in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, received a grant of $442,000 from the National Science Foundation to study the adoption of teaching practices for retaining women in computing and information technology (IT) degrees and fields.

Women's low participation in computing professions is a public concern, affecting the ability of the United States to remain globally competitive and to maintain its high standards in health, defense and national security.

The current post-secondary graduation rates in computing disciplines suggest American universities are only training enough students to fill one third of the projected 1.4 million technology and computing jobs available. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of professional computing and information sciences jobs will grow at more than twice the rate of all engineering, life sciences, natural sciences and physical sciences combined through 2018.

At the same time, women's participation in computing is lower than nearly all science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines: only 18 percent of all 2009 computing bachelor's degrees were awarded to women.

"Women's underrepresentation reduces national progress, both because women can expand the size of the workforce and because of the value of diversity," said Barker. "Research demonstrates that innovation is improved by diversifying problem-solving among groups that invent and design products and services."

Underutilizing the human capital of women and under-represented minorities in this critical workforce is damaging both to the nation and to these two segments of society, as their chances of entering one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying careers is minimal.

The National Research Council of the National Academies, an organization that supports government decision-making and public policy in matters involving science, engineering, technology and health, reports "the low participation of women in information technology development will put the U.S. at a dangerous disadvantage."

"Despite widespread development and dissemination of research-based practices that can reverse the gender imbalance in computer science, typical faculty teaching methods make computing less inviting to women than to men and lead to women's greater attrition," said Barker.

"For example, assignments and tests appeal more to male interests; lectures seldom place computing in context; and the communication climate can make it difficult for women to seek help or join peer study groups."

The team's research will include a study to identify the conditions that could influence computer science (CS) faculty members' adoption of practices that improve gender diversity in CS. The project builds on research and theory to increase faculty adoption of new pedagogies and curriculum as well as instill diffusion in innovation.

Findings will be shared broadly in institutes of higher education, including offices of faculty professional developers, who can craft and test faculty development methods that result in gender inclusive teaching. Findings also will be disseminated among department chairs and deans.

The research team consists of Barker, who is the principal investigator, and Professor Joanne McGrath Cohoon and Dr. Leisa Thompson of the University of Virginia.

Barker serves as a senior research scientist for the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), a consortium of more than 300 prominent corporations, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations. She conducts research and evaluation into under-representation of women and minorities in computing education as well as of the development and integration of educational technology resources in higher education.