NSF study examines lack of women, minorities in IT field

December 10, 2001

ATHENS, Ohio - Though information technology workers are in high demand in today's job market, women and minorities seem to be steering clear of the field, a career decision Ohio University researchers suspect may be influenced by media messages people receive as early as middle school.

The researchers, funded by a $556,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, are examining this theory through a pilot study of more than 100 students at Mt. Logan Middle School in Chillicothe, Ohio, before widening the project to 12 other schools across the nation next year. Students will help the researchers collect data that may explain why women and minorities don't pursue the IT field. The project also will create a new curriculum to help teachers educate students about career choices and media messages.

The study, led by Ohio University's Phyllis Bernt, professor of communication systems management, and Joseph Bernt, professor of journalism, in the College of Communication and Sandra Turner, professor of educational studies in the College of Education, is part of a larger National Science Foundation effort to examine the growing need for computer programmers, network administrators, software designers and other related technology specialists.

"The industry needs more workers, but society is also losing out because a very important infrastructure is being developed by a small, non-representative group of people," said Phyllis Bernt.

According to recent studies, women account for only 20 percent of information technology workers; minorities account for less than 5 percent. The researchers suspect these groups are opting out of such high-tech fields as early as middle school, and that messages they receive from television, books, the Internet, movies and even career materials could be a factor. Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation has shown that middle school students are exposed to an average of eight hours and eight minutes of media per day, including television and the Internet.

"Kids learn from an early age that if something is in print, it's true. And today, if it's on the Internet, it's true," said Turner, who previously has studied why women don't pursue math careers. During the three-year study, the team will survey middle school media specialists and librarians nationwide to determine what type of media is available to students. Joseph Bernt will analyze the content of these magazines, books, Web sites and movies to determine what overt and hidden messages they may be conveying to pre-teens.

But a key element of the study calls for students to interview each other about media habits and conduct their own media analysis. This not only will aid the researchers in collecting data on what information young people are actually consuming, but will train the students to cast a critical eye on the media. "In doing a content analysis, they are also learning about stereotypes in the media and will be learning to read and view the media in a new way," said Joseph Bernt.

The three teachers at Mt. Logan Middle School in Chillicothe involved in the initial phase of the study say the hands-on nature of the project will help their students relate what they learn in the classroom to the real world.

"Part of my curriculum is teaching them real-life applications for what we're doing, so my students will be taking data, graphing it and making statements about what they find," said Nancy Arledge, a seventh-grade math teacher. Arledge and her colleagues - Martha Davis, who teaches language arts, and Debbie Elliott, who teaches science - agree that the project also will open the eyes of girls and minority students to other career possibilities.

"I have girls who tell me they'd like to be a vet, but all the math and science involved scares them away," said Elliott, who tells female students that with hard work, time and patience, they can reach their career goals.

The researchers expect to present preliminary data to career counselors in June and will post the experimental curriculum to a Web site for use by other teachers in September. Next fall, the team also will recruit 12 demographically diverse classrooms from around the country to participate in a full-scale version of the project. The researchers expect to distribute findings from the study to those in the education field, information technology industry and the media.
-end-
Contacts: At Ohio University:
Phyllis Bernt, 740-593-0020, bernt@ohio.edu
Joseph Bernt, 740-593-4118, berntj@ohio.edu
Sandra Turner, 740-593-9826, turners@ohio.edu.
At Mt. Logan Middle School: Nancy Arledge, Debbie Elliot and Martha Davis, 740-773-2638.

Ohio University

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