SPA Professor Researches Lack of Native Americans in Information Technology Fields
March 13, 2003
Varma, who teaches in the School of Public Administration within the Anderson Schools of Management, has spent the past several years performing research related to women and minorities in Information Technology (IT), or the lack thereof, under grants from the National Science Foundation and Alfred Sloan Foundation.
"Computers penetrate in America, but they have not become a part of education for Native Americans. It is critical for American society, which promotes equal access to education and employment, that the issue of under-representation of Native Americans in IT is addressed," said Varma. "The number of Native Americans pursuing IT education is very low. What I've found is that quite a few Native American students enroll in IT related disciplines, but they get discouraged and drop-out. They find that they do not have the adequate background to do the course work."
Participation of various groups, based on income, race/ethnicity, gender, geographic location, age and education in IT, remains unequal, says Varma. The term "digital divide" characterizes demographic gaps in access to information and effective use of IT, she adds. In 2000, 32.6 percent of Afro-American and 33.7 percent of Hispanic households owned computers compared with 51 percent for all households nationally. Native Americans are rarely represented in such statistics and assessments of racial disparities in IT because of their small population (1.5 percent of U.S. population) as well as token presence in IT disciplines.
Regarding access to the Internet, more than 65 percent of all households that earned more than $50,000 had Internet access in 2000, according to a study conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2002. For households with income below $25,000, less than 20 percent of all households had Internet access. The poverty rate for Native Americans is the highest among all racial groups.
A Taulbee Survey of the academic year 2001-2002 in the United States and Canada found that Native Americans earned only 44 of computer science and a mere six of computer engineering bachelor degrees and Varma wants to find out why.
"Native American women are preoccupied with more traditional problems they have to face in their daily lives." said Varma. "Pursuing a degree as well as employment in IT can mean that you may have to move out of your family home and go elsewhere, and I don't think that appeals to them. They like to be close to their families."
To gain primary data, Varma will conduct ethnographic interviews, which studies the topic from the subject's point of view rather than from the expert's. Native Americans are the best source of information on many factors relevant to their attitudes and decisions to IT, says Varma, who plans to interview approximately 60 students from both non-tribal and tribal colleges and universities.
In her research, Varma plans to consider factors influencing Native Americans' pursuit of education in an IT field; factors contributing to their dropout rate in the IT field; possible contradictions or conflicts between their lifestyles and the way IT careers are pursued; viewpoints on whether or not IT is possibly beneficial to their lives, families and communities; and tension between leaving their community versus benefits gained in pursuing an IT career.
Varma thinks adequate advising and support structures, better time management skills, and experience with debugging skills can significantly improve retention of Native American students in IT.
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