While many people are looking for the easy route when it comes to scheduling their electives, Gypsy Abbott, Ph.D., was doing the opposite during her college days.

Abbott remembers vividly the elective classes she took when she was pursuing a master’s degree in counseling. Bowling? Well, no. Try programming languages in the computer science department.
Programming languages?

“I just thought it was fun,” Abbott says. “It’s like solving a little problem, a puzzle of sorts.”

More than 25 years later, learning new technologies and studying the way females use technology still fascinates Abbott.  In fact, the Society for Information in Education recently awarded Abbott the 2006 Outstanding Service in Digital Equity Award, created to recognize the variety of successful approaches employed in teacher education to bridge the digital divides carved by economic, cultural, physical and mental diversities.

It’s not the first time Abbott has been honored for her work. In 2001 she was the recipient of the Outstanding Contribution to Supercomputing in Education for the State of Alabama. The annual award is presented by the Alabama Program to Inspire computational Research in Education (ASPIRE).

Abbott, who either has written or evaluated more than $6 million in grants while at UAB, is project director on the UAB ADVANCE grant, funded by the National Science Foundation. The $3.5 million grant, which Abbott is helping implement, is used to examine issues related to women faculty members in science and engineering.

Rose Scripa, Ph.D., associate provost for Faculty Development & Faculty Affairs and principal investigator on the UAB ADVANCE project, says Abbott has been an excellent addition to the leadership team and praises her dedication to the advancement of women in the sciences.

“Gypsy’s involvement in the ADVANCE grant is a natural extension of her internationally recognized research work in the area of increasing gender and racial equity in the areas of math, science and technology,” Scripa says. “It has been a pleasure working with Gypsy this past year and to see her expertise in the area of qualitative evaluation blend with her passion for developing programs that will enhance the participation of women in the sciences.”

Gaming makes a difference
One of the components that has contributed to the digital divide among males and females is video games, Abbott’s research shows.

Go to any store where video games are sold and compare the number of games targeted to girls and the number targeted to boys and you will likely get very weighted results in favor of the boys. And when these games are being marketed to children at a young age, it gives the boys an early advantage on the girls in when they are introduced to technology.

“Boys are interested in playing games, and games for girls have been boring,” Abbott says. “But that is changing somewhat. Now we’re getting more female software engineers involved in game design, and they are aware that getting that early exposure to technology builds confidence.”

Abbott says technology across the board is becoming more female-friendly. Cell phones, text messaging and Web sites such as Facebook have opened some of the technology doors, Abbott says. They are more collaborative technologies — something she says appeals to girls.

Still, “Multiple studies suggest girls’ confidence in using technology is lower than that of boys,” she says. Getting girls to use technology at an earlier age can help ease some of their fears and raise their confidence, she says.

“This generation, the Net Generation, is definitely decreasing the digital divide related to gender,” Abbott says. “Unfortunately a divide still exists related to socioeconomic status and for minority students.”

Abbott says UAB’s School of Education is doing its part to teach technology to female and male students by keeping pace with the changes in society themselves.

“We’re continually educating our faculty on the use of emerging technologies and how technology use can improve students’ interest in and engagement with all disciplines that are studied,” she says.

Which ties into another fact about Abbott: She actually opened the first computer lab in the UAB School of Education in 1985. “We had one computer,” she says. Now many of her students have their own computer. And with technology now available to so many, it enables Abbott to use the latest tools to facilitate student learning.

“I think that’s what always drives me to keep learning new technologies,” she says, “the idea that I can find effective ways to promote learning.”