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September 19, 2007

Purdue project will help attract girls to computer-related careers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A Purdue University professor will use a $1.19 million grant funded by the National Science Foundation to work with high school teachers and counselors to increase the number of young people pursuing careers in computer-related fields.

Alka Harriger, professor and assistant head of the Department of Computer and Information Technology, wrote the grant proposal for the three-year project called Surprising Possibilities Imagined and Realized Through Information Technology (SPIRIT). The goal in working with high school teachers and counselors is to reach those who have direct influence on students' career choices.

"We are pursuing this project because of the dramatic decline of female freshmen interested in computing programs in the last several years," she said. "One national study found that female enrollment in college computer programs is down from 40 percent in 2000 to between 8 percent and 15 percent today.

"I have been on the faculty at Purdue since 1982. Through the years, I and others have witnessed the male-to-female student demographic shift from 50-50 to 90-10. When our 2004 freshman incoming class of nearly 100 students included just one female, it was like a slap in the face to wake up and take action."

Harriger will lead all SPIRIT activities. Kyle Lutes, an associate professor in the department, and Buster Dunsmore, an associate professor of computer science, are working with Harriger on the project.

The SPIRIT project focuses on encouraging more young women to pursue computing careers, such as in information technology, computer science, network engineering and technology support. It will do so by educating high school teachers and counselors about wide-ranging career options open to women in those fields, clearing misperceptions people have about careers in the computer industry and instructing participants on how to use computer software to create storyboards that can convey technical subject material in an engaging manner.

SPIRIT summer programs, the first of which will be at Purdue in July, will bring high school teachers, counselors and students together to teach them how to use a 3-D, interactive software development tool called Alice. Alice was created by Carnegie Mellon University to help students better understand concepts in what are known as the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math.

"What Alice does is introduce students to the concepts of object-oriented programming in such an engaging way that they don't realize they are learning; they are just having fun," Harriger said. "Instead of having to tackle a lot of code and symbols when they take a programming course, they will learn the material in a format that explains programming visually as they go along."

Harriger said that one study has shown that students who complete an Alice-based course before a traditional computer programming course received on average a letter grade higher than computer-programming students who hadn't completed Alice training.

"Alice is a graphical tool where students can create virtual worlds and place objects in their world to tell a tale, much like writing a storyboard," she said. "You don't feel like you're creating a program because you never really have to type any code.

"For people who are new to programming, we've found that coding scares them at first, but Alice is open and welcoming and shown to help students succeed. That's why we want to show teachers and counselors how Alice can be used to get their students interested in technical careers, especially women."

Harriger said that, in addition to teaching computer programming, Alice also can be used to support instruction in a wide variety of subjects, including math and science. Asking students to create Alice storyboards in another subject will allow them to learn the software and the subject matter they are illustrating.

In addition to the Alice lessons, participants in the summer workshop will hear from speakers who will talk about the kinds of careers available to those who study information technology in college. During the second week of the workshop, teachers will be able to try out the Alice skills they've learned on students.

"We've found that a lot of girls are turned off by careers in computer-related fields due to the misconception that these jobs are boring, that they don't interact with anyone, that they do the same work every day and that people who hold these jobs don't benefit society," Harriger said. "Many of these misconceptions are also held by parents, teachers and counselors.

"With this project, we'd like to present a different view of information-technology careers and show girls that there is a place for them in information technology and that they can make a difference."

Harriger said information technology skills can be applied in fields such as health care, biomedical informatics and cyberforensics.

"It's crucial that women be represented in information-technology fields," she said. "Men and women look at things differently, so it only makes sense that for a product like software to appeal to all audiences, both men and women should be involved in its creation."

Other team members on the SPIRIT project are Toni Munguia, diversity director in the College of Technology; Suchita Dadhich, in charge of strategic innovation and organizational capability at IBM Rational; Jessica Berger, a teacher at Delphi High School; Barb Moskal, associate professor and director of the Center for Assessment of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Colorado School of Mines; and Mikel Berger, a software consultant.

The SPIRIT project is one of only two projects in Indiana currently funded through the National Science Foundation's Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. The program funds projects that provide opportunities for students and teachers to build skills and knowledge to advance their study and to function and contribute in a technologically rich society.

Harriger is seeking 20 high school teachers, 10 counselors and 60 students to participate in the summer 2008 program. There is no cost to attend the workshop, and food and lodging will be provided. Additionally, all participants will receive a daily stipend for their participation.

The teacher program will begin on July 7, and the student and counselor programs will begin on July 14. All programs finish on July 18.

Upon completion of the workshop, teachers will be expected to use what they have learned to enhance instruction in their own classrooms. They also will receive technical and design support, software, textbooks and sample lesson plans.

During the following spring semester, the teachers will return to the Purdue campus to share lessons learned. Teachers who complete the workshop will be eligible to apply for one of five internships provided by IBM.

In addition, teachers and counselors may apply for graduate course credit, certification renewal units or continuing education units upon the successful completion of the SPIRIT program. Partial travel support also will be available to teachers that present their work at teacher conferences.

Workshops also are planned for the summers of 2009 and 2010 and will involve more participants.

For additional information about the SPIRIT program or to sign up, contact Harriger at (765) 494-2565,

Writer: Kim Medaris, (765) 494-6998,

Sources: Alka Harriger, (765) 494-2565,

Kyle Lutes, (765) 494-5125,

Buster Dunsmore, (765) 494-1996,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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