After year one of a five-year grant intended to support the education of young women about careers in information technology in the Appalachian region, Virginia Tech researchers report that their project has impacted 365 people; or one person per day.

In 2008, Virginia Tech researchers Peggy S. Meszaros and Elizabeth Creamer received a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to launch the Appalachian Information Technology Extension Service (AITES). Studies by Meszaros, the director of the Center for Technology Impacts on Children, Youth and Families; and Creamer, a professor in the university’s School of Education, demonstrated that interactions with others dissuade young girls with an interest in technology from considering a career in information technology.

“There’s nothing wrong with the girls,” said Meszaros, “they have as much interest, ability, and access as boys their age. What is lacking is encouragement from those around them and knowledge of local opportunities.” Girls from the targeted regions where AITES is concentrating its efforts tend to choose fields and careers other than those in technology as a result of preconceived notions, stereotypes, and lack of support from those around them. Since 1980, the percentage of women in the information technology workforce has dropped from 39 percent to only 13 percent in 2007.

“We’ve been focusing on Virginia during this first year,” said Meszaros. “We started our second year on Oct. 1 when we moved into Kentucky and Tennessee. In our third year we will go into North Carolina and West Virginia and then the last two years of the grant will be focused on sustaining the program in all five states.”

The intent of the comprehensive, research-based extension program is to increase community capacity and support economic development in the targeted regions through the development of community cohort teams (CCTs). These teams are comprised of school counselors, teachers, Family and Consumer Science, and 4-H Extension agents. Their focus is on training those that comprise the support systems of middle and high school girls in the targeted region such as parents, teachers, and school counselors. This “train-the-trainer” model dramatically increases the reach of AITES.

“With the multiplier effect of the train-the-trainer model, the circle of informed individuals in the community who reach the girls will get wider every day,” noted Creamer, “so that eventually girls will be reaching girls … 365 is a lot for the first year, but it is only going to get bigger.”

Promising as it is, this model can be a challenge to implement. “The first year was definitely a learning experience,” admitted Meszaros. “Even so, since going back to Washington and Russell counties to meet with the community cohort teams, I am impressed with how enthusiastic the members have remained,” said Meszaros. “We’ve received positive feedback from the communities and the local [information technology] industries have helped us illustrate the breadth of [information technology] jobs available locally.”

AITES uses the image of a tandem bike to illustrate the power of partners. The girl on the front of the bike steers and the stoker provides encouragement and momentum. Stokers include parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and all those who provide support.

“This work continues to gain importance in building economic development, workforce development, and human development for Appalachia and females entering the [information technology] job pipeline,” said Meszaros, “we are encouraged with our results and the impact we are having thus far.”

For more information, visit the AITES page.

Written by Whitney Webb who is a senior English major in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences from Riner, Va. Webb is also an intern with the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

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