Integrating new location-aware computer networks with old-fashioned human networks, researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) have developed an innovative solution to the problem of isolation that faces women in the academic science and engineering workforce. The project, “NJIT Advance,” is funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“Despite decades of taskforce recommendations, women faculty at technological institutions still too often find themselves positioned on islands, disconnected from the mainland of academic life,” explained the project’s leader, Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, PhD, director of NJIT’s Murray Center for Women in Technology. “Women researchers have plenty of human capital—the ‘what-you-know’ component of career success—but, because they are isolated, it is much harder for them to accumulate social capital, the ‘who-you-know’ connections through which insider information flows.”
NJIT Advance will address this problem by seed-funding small cross-disciplinary communities within which women faculty can do collaborative research, with each other and with male peers, from a position of numerical strength. The researchers will then interconnect these communities using traditional face-to-face networking strategies in combination with 21st-century pervasive information technology. “We want to see whether we can use location-aware mobile communication systems (called P3 tools) to increase information flow among collaborators who are housed in different departments,” said Steffen-Fluhr. The P3 tools, which link people-to-people-to-geographical-places, are being developed as part of NJIT’s “Smart Campus” project, a location-aware community cybersystem supported by a separate NSF grant.
To assess the effectiveness of the project’s strategy, Steffen-Fluhr and her colleagues will collect faculty data from the P3 study and other sources and use it to create a dynamic computer map showing changes in social network complexity over time. “Nobody has tried to do this before,” said Steffen-Fluhr, “but if it works, it will provide a new method of measuring institutional climate change that can be used at universities across the country.”
The first of NJIT’s Advance-funded research projects is a geospatial technology lab within which four women faculty members will work on a coastal water quality modeling project. “Geospatial technologies provide an especially good medium for interdisciplinary collaboration because these technologies have many potential uses, including homeland security and global climate issues,” Steffen-Fluhr said. “In this project, the research team is using remote sensing data as a management tool to monitor and predict the spread of pollution in the Hudson/Raritan Estuary of New York and New Jersey.” In subsequent years of the grant, NJIT Advance will provide seed-funding for collaborative projects in other research areas.
Steffen-Fluhr, of Newfoundland, Rockaway Township, an associate professor in the humanities department, teaches courses in gender and technology, science fiction and computer-mediated collaborative writing. She has chaired NJIT’s Committee on Women’s Issues and is the author of NJIT’s 2005 Status of Women Faculty report.
Steffen-Fluhr’s research explores the relationship between gender and technology as interdependent social constructs, with a special interest in how gender and sex are depicted in U.S. film and television. Her scholarly publications include essays on science fiction writers James Tiptree and H.G. Wells and the classic 1950’s science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Steffen-Fluhr received her PhD from Brandeis University.