Webcast tackles IT gender gap

To engage girls in the study of science and technology, educators need to convey the right message about the roles these fields play in society and the skills they require–and they also need to provide more hands-on activities that have some social value.

These were the main lessons imparted during a Sept. 21 webcast hosted by the National Science Foundation’s Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. Concerned about the disparity between the number of men and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, ITEST convened the webcast as a way to share ideas for how to spark–and retain–girls’ interest in these fields.

The webcast included a panel of speakers from the ITEST community, the private sector, and research and policy communities.

“We really need women in the IT [information technology] arena, because we need to have diversity of thought, generate new ideas, and create a workforce that mirrors the world we’re a part of,” said Carroll McGillin, the national initiatives manager for Cisco Systems’ Networking Academies program. Cisco Systems and the Cisco Learning Institute have developed the Gender Initiative Project, which explores ways to increase women’s access to IT training and careers.

To attract young girls and women to IT fields, McGillin said, educators and employers need to tell them there is a bright future in IT–and that, while technical capabilities are important, prospective IT employees also should have a flexible and collaborative nature, as well as the ability to think critically and learn quickly.

“We want girls to see how technology can help the world, and that it’s an engaging environment,” McGillen added, putting forth a notion that was echoed throughout the webcast: that girls tend to be drawn toward the social implications of technology use, whereas boys are more drawn to the nuts and bolts of technology.

That theme was later taken up by Deborah Muscella, principal investigator for the Technology at the Crossroads project, an initiative at Simmons College that engages middle school youth (with a particular emphasis on girls) in the use of geographic information systems (GIS) technology, global positioning systems (GPS) technology, and hypertext markup langauge (HTML) programming for use in conducting environmental research in Boston.

“Girls have reservations about the computer culture, and they’re concerned about the passivity of their interactions with computers,” Muscella said. “Girls think that technology isn’t taught in the context of real-world problem solving and that technology is devoid of an understandable human context.”

Customizing activities around community resources and focusing on what girls want to learn and experience are key steps in attracting girls and women to STEM careers, said Marcia Kropf, the chief operating officer of Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring girls to be “strong, smart, and bold.”

“Encouraging experimental learning and creating a network with community professional STEM members will go a long way” toward interesting girls in these fields, Kropf said.

Science, math, and technology projects “have to be of interest to female students,” agreed Randal August, principal investigator for the Robotics: Fundamentals of Information Technology and Engineering project at Northeastern University. Through this project, TechBoston and Northeastern University are working collaboratively to integrate an innovative robotics curriculum into STEM courses in Boston public schools and in other racially diverse and economically disadvantaged Massachusetts school districts.

Research and self-reflection also are important. “We have to ask the question that, as we develop something that works well, will it transfer over and appeal to women and girls?” said Claudia Morrell, principal investigator for the Enhancing Science and Technology Education and Exploration Mentoring (ESTEEM) project.

In this project, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s Center for Women and Information Technology, the Shriver Center, and the Chabot Space and Science Center have teamed up to implement and beta test Chabot’s TechBridge curriculum in six middle schools. Activities include an after-school program, weekend fieldtrips, and a four-week summer program. The ESTEEM program focuses on encouraging girls’ interest and involvement in elective IT classes and supports their pursuit of IT careers.

“An important aspect is to ask girls and women what motivates them to establish themselves to stay in technology fields,” Muscella added.

Engaging girls in STEM activities can be accomplished “through hands-on activities, all-girls environments, encouraging the girls to take risks, and introducing them to interesting women in STEM fields,” Kropf said. But to keep girls and women interested, a number of different issues, such as the “geek” and “gross” factors, have to be eliminated, August added.

“Things like the ‘gross’ factor keep young girls and young women from wanting to join in, and our biggest goal is to present robotics, math, science, and engineering in a way that will keep these kids interested,” he said. August’s Robotics program targets sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in an effort to keep those girls interested in the sciences as they enter high school.

Part of the problem might be this “gross” factor. “Encouraging girls to take risks, get messy, and try things that are interesting and gross” will help them become more involved in IT fields, Kropf said. In fact, one formula for success is to assume that girls are interested in math, science, and technology, and then help them get past the “yuk” factor, she added.

All of the speakers agreed that women are greatly underrepresented in STEM fields and that much can be done to increase the number of girls and women who become interested in, and remain in, science-related careers and fields. Women constitute just 20 percent of the total technology workforce, according to 2002 U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Women represent 51 percent of the population, but just 26 percent of computer scientists, nine percent of engineers, and 20 percent of the IT workforce, Muscella said. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, women in 2001 earned 28 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science, 34 percent of master’s degrees, and 18 percent of all doctoral degrees.

When girls have reservations about the computer culture, educating them about technology and its importance in the future workplace might be key in attracting them to IT fields.

The top five fastest-growing U.S. occupations between 1998 and 2008 are all IT-related occupations that require advanced computer skills, and currently fewer women than men occupy those positions, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau published online at the Girls Inc. web site.

Many resources are available to help recruit girls and women into science and technology fields. Women in Technology, a Hawaii-based stateside program run by the U.S. Department of Labor, encourages girls and young women to enter science, technology, engineering, and math careers. Women in Technology International, founded in 1989, helps women advance by providing access to and support from other professional women working in all sectors of technology. The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology aims to increase the impact of women on all aspects of technology.

Links:

ITEST Learning and Resource Center
http://www.edc.org/itestlrc

Cisco Networking Academy Programs Gender Initiative Project
http://www.cisco.com/web/learning/netacad/digital_divide/gender/index.html

The Center for Women in IT ESTEEM Project
http://www.umbc.edu/cwit/add/esteem.html

Robotics: Fundamentals of Information Technology and Engineering
http://www2.edc.org/itestlrc/itestprojects/Robotics_ma.htm

Technology at the Crossroads
http://www2.edc.org/itestlrc/itestprojects/Crossroad_ma.htm

Women in Technology
http://www.womenintech.com

Girls Inc.
http://www.girlsinc.org

Women in Technology International
http://www.witi.com

The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
http://www.anitaborg.org

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New tool aims to ease academic file sharing

Researchers at Penn State and other universities have developed a tool to help educators and researchers search for and exchange large academic or scientific files more easily–using the principles most associated with trading music and movies illegally.

But unlike the free “peer-to-peer” (P2P) file-sharing systems that have drawn complaints and lawsuits from the entertainment industry, people who allow data to be exchanged over LionShare can place limits on who can view specific files.

“It all comes down to how people share content and what restrictions they put on the content that they share,” said Mike Halm, director of LionShare project at Pennsylvania State University, where the project originated.

The secure, private network is meant for faculty, researchers, and students to share photos, research, class materials, and other types of information that might be not be easily accessible through current technology, Halm said.

“It’s a lot more than [an] academic Napster,” he said, speaking about the project at a Sept. 20 meeting of the Internet2 consortium in Philadelphia. The consortium is a partnership of universities, businesses, and government agencies working together “to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies.”

Normally, a researcher looking for data would need to conduct separate, time-consuming searches at individual repositories–virtual warehouses where research databases, photos, or other large files can be stored. It also might be difficult to download large data sets or video of, for instance, a deep-sea expedition.

LionShare, now being tested and slated for general release on Sept. 30, combines the concepts of P2P file sharing–or exchanging files directly between computers, without the use of a file server–and repository searching into a single search, “like Google-searching the internet,” Halm said.

Fred von Lohmann, an intellectual property attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said LionShare appears to be a great tool for academics.

“A lot of internet users want to share files without having to have their own web server,” he said.

But Von Lohmann, who represents a file-sharing service in a copyright infringement suit, warns that LionShare’s closed networks and methods to control access could possibly make it easier to violate copyright infringements by allowing students to “create a neat, private sheltered place where people could shop music and movies to their heart’s content” without entertainment companies ever knowing.

A Penn State news release about LionShare states several times that the technology is aimed at academic file sharing, not swapping copyright-protected works.

Halm said LionShare was spearheaded by Penn State researchers and developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Open Knowledge Initiative, the Internet2 P2P Working Group, and researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded a $1.1 million grant to Penn State in 2003 to develop the technology.

Links:

Penn State University
http://www.psu.edu

LionShare
http://lionshare.its.psu.edu/main

Internet2
http://www.internet2.edu

Electronic Frontier Foundation
http://www.eff.org

MIT’s Open Knowledge Initiative
http://www.okiproject.org

Simon Fraser University
http://www.sfu.ca

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Schwarzenegger solicits tales of bad teachers

The Associated Press, in a story carried on Boston.com, reports that Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was inviting Californians to post stories of inferior teachers in the state’s public schools on his web site as part of a push for a longer probationary period for teachers. Schwarzenegger, who has already drawn the ire of teachers in his state over other positions, wanted people to share stories of incompetent teachers who could not be fired due to tenure. The form for submitting this information was later removed from the site, but one Schwarzenegger spokesman said they didn’t even need to see its results because “there are so many egregious examples of this.”

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Technology transforming family relationships

Business Week examines the changing nature of the technology-rich U.S. household, and how it has affected longstanding family dynamics. Today’s families have less face-to-face contact and more connection through cell phones, text messages and eMails. As the article states: “The networked economy is leading to far different standards and expectations of what it means to be a parent and a child.”

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Denver’s scoreboards could generate revenue

Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reports that Denver Public Schools district has received seven high-tech scoreboards from the local Fox Sports Net affiliate. The scoreboards, placed inside school gyms, feature the Fox Sports Net logo and offer the district a chance to raise revenue by selling space to other advertisers eager to reach fans at basketball games and other events. The schools are already working with a marketing firm in Denver to come up with ideal corporate partners for such an advertising venture.

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Va. elementary school on tech’s cutting edge

Times Newspapers of Reston, Va., reports on the technology achievements of local Terraset Elementary School, which won a $35,000 grant from HP last spring. The 28-year-old school is known for its commitment to technology and its radical building design. The article looks back at the school’s history as well as what it is doing with technology now.

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AFT’s Feldman was true fighter for teachers

The New York Times looks back on the life of former American Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman, who died Sept. 18 of breast cancer at the age of 65. Feldman, mentored by Albert Shanker, was a strong advocate for teachers in leading the national union from 1997 to 2004 and was sometimes very critical of the Bush administration. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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Authors: Google infringing on copyrights

In the latest blow to Google Inc.’s Print Library Project, which aims to scan books from major public and academic libraries into its powerful internet search engine, an organization of more than 8,000 authors has accused the company of “massive copyright infringement,” saying Google cannot put its books in the public domain for commercial use without permission.

“The authors’ works are contained in certain public and university libraries and have not been licensed for commercial use,” The Authors Guild Inc. said in a lawsuit filed against Google Sept. 21 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The suit asks the court to block Google from copying the books so the authors would not suffer irreparable harm by being deprived of the right to control reproduction of their works. It seeks class-action status on behalf of anyone or any entity with a copyright to a literary work at the University of Michigan library, one of the participants in Google’s project.

The lawsuit has broad implications for the future of copyright laws that have long preceded the internet. Its outcome could determine how easy it will be for students, scholars, and other people with internet access to benefit from knowledge that is now mostly locked up in books sitting on dusty library shelves, many of them out of print.

“More and more people are expecting access, and they are making do with what they can get easy access to,” said Brewster Kahle, co-founder of the Internet Archive, which runs smaller book-scanning projects, mostly for out-of-copyright works. “Let’s make it so that they find great works rather than whatever just happens to be on the net.”

That’s not how The Authors Guild sees things.

“By reproducing for itself a copy of those works that are not in the public domain, Google is engaging in massive copyright infringement. It has infringed, and continues to infringe, the electronic rights of the copyright holders of those works,” the New York-based nonprofit organization claims.

Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., said in a statement that it respects copyright laws.

“We regret that this group has chosen litigation to try to stop a program that will make books and the information within them more discoverable to the world,” the company said.

To prevent the wholesale file-sharing that is plaguing the entertainment industry, Google has set some limits in its library project: Users won’t be able to print materials easily or read more than small portions of copyright-protected works online.

Google also says it will send readers hungry for more directly to booksellers and libraries.

But the authors’ guild, and many publishers, remain wary.

To endorse Google’s library initiative is to say “it’s OK to break into my house because you’re going to clean my kitchen,” said Sally Morris, chief executive of the U.K.-based Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers. “Just because you do something that’s not harmful or [is] beneficial doesn’t make it legal.”

Morris and other publishers believe Google must get their permission first, as it has under the Print Publisher Program it launched in October 2004, two months before announcing the library initiative.

Under the publishers’ program, Google has deals with most major U.S. and U.K. publishers. It scans titles they submit, displays digital images of selected pages triggered by search queries, and gives publishers a cut of revenues from accompanying ad displays.

But publishers aren’t submitting all their titles under that program, and many of the titles Google wants to scan are out of print and belong to no publisher at all, the company says.

Jim Gerber, Google’s director of content partnerships, says the company would get no more than 15 percent of all books ever published if it relied solely on publisher submissions.

That’s why it has turned to libraries.

Under the Print Library Project, Google is scanning millions of copyrighted books from libraries at Harvard, Michigan, and Stanford universities, along with out-of-copyright materials there and at two other libraries.

Google has unilaterally set this rule: Publishers can tell it which books not to scan at all, similar to how web site owners can request to be left out of search engine indexes. In August, the company halted the scanning of copyright books until Nov. 1, saying it wanted to give publishers time to compile their lists.

Richard Hull, executive director of the Text and Academic Authors Association, called Google’s approach backwards. Publishers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of record-keeping, he said.

Google, which wouldn’t say how many books it has scanned so far, says it believes its initiative is protected under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law.

Gerber argues that the initiative will “stimulate more people to contribute to the arts and the sciences by making these books more findable.”

Washington lawyer Jonathan Band says Google’s case is strong, given the limits on display–a few sentences at a time for works scanned from libraries, with technology making it difficult to recreate even a single page.

“I don’t see how making a few snippets of a work available to a user could have any negative impact on the market,” said Band, who has advised library groups and internet companies on copyright issues.

Under Google’s strictures, readers can see just five pages at a time of publisher-submitted titles–and no more than 20 percent of an entire book through multiple searches. For books in the public domain, they can read the entire book online.

Not all authors and publishers are opposed.

“For a typical author, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy,” said Tim O’Reilly, chief executive of O’Reilly Media and an adviser to Google’s project. “Google is offering publishers an amazing opportunity for people to discover their content.”

James Hilton, associate provost and interim librarian at the University of Michigan, said his school is contributing 7 million volumes over six years because one day, materials that aren’t searchable online simply won’t get read.

“That doesn’t mean it’s going to be read online, but it’s not going to be found if it’s not online,” he said.

The technology juggernaut, whose name is synonymous with online search, isn’t just shaking up book publishing.

Google has a separate project to archive television programs but so far has received limited permissions. The company also faces lawsuits over facilitating access to news resources and pornographic images online.

Jonathan Zittrain, an internet legal scholar affiliated with Oxford and Harvard universities, says the book-scanning dispute comes down balancing commercial and social benefits.

“From the point of view of the [authors], you can’t blame them for playing their role, which is to maximize sales,” he said. “But if fair use wasn’t found, [Google] would never be able to do the mass importation of books required to make a database that is socially useful.”

Links:

Google’s Print Library Project
http://print.google.com

The Authors Guild
http://www.authorsguild.org

Internet Archive
http://www.archive.org

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Texas district eyes jump to IP-based phones

An opinion piece in the Star-Telegram of Fort Worth, Texas, examines the Arlington school district’s challenge in choosing an new phone system. The article urges the district to convert its entire, outdated telephone system to a VoIP model at a startup cost of $2.5 million. The district already has the money it needs for the upgrade, and could save $2 million by installing IP telephony instead of going with a standard phone system. It could also save as much as $300,000 in annual phone bills.

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Critics blast ED’s ‘propaganda’ probe

Investigators looking into a massive, multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to support President Bush’s top education priorities acknowledge that taxpayer dollars were used in ways that often were not disclosed to the public, in clear violation of federal rules–but they stopped short of concluding that the government has engaged in any illegal propaganda.

Their report has raised the ire of many Democrats in Congress, who say it doesn’t go far enough in its rebuke. The Bush administration has devoted too much time–and money–to polishing its own public image, and not nearly enough on providing adequate funding to improve the nation’s schools, the president’s critics contend.

The report, from the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Office of the Inspector General (OIG)–the internal investigation unit responsible for policing ED programs–found that media relations firms, advocacy groups, and other private companies received nearly $5 million in grants to help galvanize public support for the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) without disclosing that they received taxpayer funds to do so, as required by law.

In at least four cases, education officials failed to turn over materials necessary for investigators to conduct a thorough analysis. In one such instance–a $1.7 million public relations effort–ED was unable to provide a complete list of work statements associated with the contract and could not specify what deliverables the investment intended to yield.

Though the report, released by Inspector General John Higgins’ office earlier this month, found no evidence of “covert propaganda” on behalf of education officials, it did say ED needs to do a better job of tracking and monitoring how taxpayer dollars are spent and even suggested that the administration move to recoup some of the monies in those instances where rules governing full disclosure reportedly were broken.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., requested the report in January after it was discovered that ED paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote NCLB programs in newspaper columns and as part of his television talk show. Williams’ payment was part of a larger, $1.3 million contract awarded to the Ketchum public relations firm for promotion related to the landmark education law.

Williams was one of several high-profile columnists who reportedly received federal money as part of larger grants or contracts intended to create brand awareness and promote NCLB-related policies, documents have revealed.

Though the government is allowed to hire PR firms and other individuals to advocate for reform, the rule states that these parties must openly disclose their government ties to the public. Failing to disclose such a relationship could be construed as an attempt to sway public opinion unfairly, according to the report.

In all, investigators reviewed some 20 contracts and 15 grants awarded by ED from 1999 through 2004 for evidence of “covert propaganda.”

According to the report, three grants were used to create opinion pieces in newspapers. Each of these failed to disclose that they were produced with the aid of government dollars, though ED officials claim–and investigators agree–the oversight was unintentional.

“While three of the grants resulted in op-ed opinion pieces that did not include the disclaimer language required … we did not find evidence to conclude that the department awarded these grants with an intent to influence public opinion through the undisclosed use of third-party grantees,” wrote investigators.

But that doesn’t mean ED shouldn’t attempt to recoup the funds. “In the absence of the disclaimer language, the funds used to produce a publication may be an improper expenditure, requiring [ED] to initiate appropriate recovery action,” the report stated.

Six other grants used to create brochures, print and radio ads, billboards, and other pro-NCLB materials also did not fully disclose the role of the department, according to the report. One contract, meanwhile, still is under review pending ED’s ability to produce the relevant paperwork, officials said. Because disclosure rules are more lenient for advertisements than for op-ed pieces, investigators recommend that ED seek reimbursement for these materials on a case-by-case basis.

The OIG’s findings weren’t enough to satisfy Miller, who accused the department of attempting to avoid public scrutiny by claiming ignorance. In its defense, ED claims that grantees and contractors simply were not aware of the rules.

“The department is trying to define itself out of trouble by setting the bar very high for what constitutes ‘covert propaganda,'” said Miller. “But on multiple occasions, education groups used taxpayer money–unbeknownst to taxpayers–to promote controversial federal policies.”

He added: “The department allowed this egregious use of taxpayer dollars to continue with such consistency that it cannot now claim that it was ignorant of the practice. Either the department is grossly incompetent when it comes to awarding grants and contracts, or it is misleading investigators and engaging in a cover-up.”

All told, ED spent more than $14 million in grants and contracts through 2004 to promote NCLB to the public.

Though total federal spending on education also rose during this period, state and local education leaders from both political parties contend the increased funding hasn’t been enough to meet NCLB’s strict mandates for student achievement. What’s more, budget cuts are likely across the board in 2006 as Congress weighs spending hundreds of billions in additional aid for the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast region and the war on terror.

For advocates of educational technology, the budget picture has been even bleaker. While ED was spending $14 million to promote NCLB, funding for the Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program–the main source of federal funding for educational technology–dropped from $700.5 million in 2002 to $496 million last year.

Still, the practice of spinning pre-packaged marketing as legitimate news is nothing new to Washington politics. Former President Clinton used similar strategies to get some of his messages out to the public. In March, an investigation by The New York Times found that Clinton, like Bush, also had a habit of paying public relations firms to produce canned news reports written and reported by supposedly objective journalists.

But the line between true journalism and recycled PR-speak has been blurred even more since Bush took office, critics say.

“Under the Bush administration, federal agencies appear to be producing more releases, and on a broader array of topics,” the Times pointed out.

Though it’s nearly impossible to track every piece of government-produced news that appears on television or in the pages of major newspapers, estimates say Bush spent close to $254 million on public relations contracts during his first term in office, nearly twice what Clinton spent, according to the paper.

To ED’s credit, investigators looking into the department’s PR efforts said a majority of the grants and contracts used to promote NCLB and other initiatives–about $8 million worth–either properly disclosed the government’s involvement or were not required to because they were never intended for public consumption.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings did not concede any fault on behalf of the department, but agreed that there is room for improvement. The findings “will be very helpful to the department in our continuing efforts to improve our processes in awarding and monitoring grants and contracts,” wrote Spellings in response to the report.

When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, ED refused to comment further, saying that “apart from Secretary Spellings’ letter addressing this, we haven’t provided any further responses.”

ED also refused to say why it failed to provide investigators with requested information pertaining to four contracts and at least one grant.

In her letter, Spellings said officials would try to locate the missing documents and eventually turn them over for review. In the event of any violation of law, Spellings said, “the department will take appropriate remedial action.”

In the meantime, OIG made several recommendations for ED as it seeks to improve its overall handling of public relations campaigns–improvements Spellings says the department either is working on already or intends to implement in the not-too-distant future.

For starters, investigators recommended that ED devise a more efficient means of helping internal personnel and grantees understand rules and policies to ensure that contracts and grants are handled appropriately.

The OIG also said ED should make a more concerted effort to track and monitor grants and contracts, so officials can better understand how well projects help the department meet its long-term goals.

Spellings’ pledge to tighten the bolts on ED’s PR machine notwithstanding, Miller and other critics contend the damage already has been done.

“This was an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars, and the taxpayers ought to be made whole again,” said Miller. “But that’s only part of the story. People looking at advertisements or reading their local newspapers would have had no idea that what they were reading was bought and paid for with their tax dollars. No matter which way you slice it, that is propaganda.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov/

Office of the Inspector General
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/index.html?src=oc

OIG’s “Review of Department-Identified Contracts and Grants for Public Relations Services”
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports/i13f0012.pdf

Rep. George Miller
http://www.house.gov/georgemiller/

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