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$525,000 NSF Grant Supports CSULB, CSF Joint Project

Published: December 15, 2011

CSULB and California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) received a three-year, $525,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a collaborative research project that will focus on increasing women’s interest and retention in computer science and engineering fields and careers.

Awarded through the NSF’s Research on Gender in Science and Engineering directorate, the study will look at the impact of the interdisciplinary, collaborative research model (ICRM) on the academic and career trajectories of undergraduate computer science and engineering (CSE) students at six pre-selected case study institutions on the West Coast.

The research is qualitative in nature and involves extensive observations and interviews with the same individuals at each of the six case study campuses over a three-year period.

Co-principal investigators for the project are Laura Portnoi, CSULB associate professor of advanced studies in education and counseling, and Karen Kim, co-director of the Center for Research on Educational Access and Leadership and a lecturer in educational leadership at CSUF.

“It has been improving, and it has been improving for women for sure,” said Portnoi about individuals studying and working in science-related fields. “However, the area we are focusing on, computer science in particular, has developed the least in regard to the gender imbalance. The imbalance is greatest in this area and that’s why we focused on this particular aspect in what is called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Previous research that shows that context matters a great deal. It shows that the culture at institutions and universities, along with the workplace, are not conducive to retaining women in many STEM fields.”

The study will investigate how ICRM experiences in CSE departments shape undergraduate women’s educational and vocational trajectories (persistence in major, graduation, intention to pursue graduate degrees and/or careers in computing) to generate data relevant for improving CSE curricula/programs. Prior research suggests that undergraduate women in computer science and engineering would benefit from involvement in curricular and extra-curricular activities associated with ICRM. Findings from this study could have the potential to strongly impact the reformulation of the undergraduate CSE curriculum.

“I think the key factor in our success for this research study is being able to establish the connection between the ICRM model and women’s interest in engineering as a major and then future careers in computer science and engineering,” said Portnoi. “We are trying to uncover what’s really working well at the institutions and then other institutions like them could perhaps use this information to improve their program. So, it’s about seeing what’s worked really well and then sharing that with others.”

The study incorporates a multi-phased approach in which the cases and research subjects are studied in-depth over three years. The first year of the study will involve in-person observations and interviews with students, faculty and academic leaders; the second year will include site visits and follow-up interviews with the students as they continue in their undergraduate careers; and the third year will consist of student interviews and observations as they prepare to graduate.

“The first year will be the most intensive research period,” noted Portnoi. “We will be going to the research sites for approximately three weeks each, where we will be doing observations of students and their faculty, looking at the context in which they are studying and we’ll also be interviewing faculty and administrators during that time. Then we will check back with them a year later and a year after that.”

The study, which began in early October, involves 90 students, divided equally among the six schools, with the actual research portion of the project commencing in spring 2012.

“This is a collaborative grant so the funding is split between the two institutions (CSULB and CSUF), which means it’s one research project and we are carrying it out together as opposed to having two parallel projects,” explained Portnoi. “One of the key aspects of the grant is hiring graduate and undergraduate students to work with us. It was really clear to both of us that developing CSULB and CSUF students as researchers would be central, so we have included funding for students as a component of the research.”

–Shayne Schroeder