STEM CareerBuilder Explores Strategic Government-University-Industry Partnerships Using Technology Enriched Interventions To Support High School Girls

By Kavita Mittapalli, Ph.D. MN Associates, Inc. (external evaluator) and Joselina Cheng, Ph.D. University of Central Oklahoma, (principal investigator) Computer Forensics Program

The need for Computer Forensics (CF) professionals is becoming a national priority due to an increased reliance on technology and tools leading to critical data and security breaches, hacking, and cybercrime that are driving up the complexity and costs to maintain the functionality and privacy of these systems. Solving modern day cybercrimes requires specialized skills including knowledge and practices from the STEM discipline areas as well as competencies with technology and soft skills valued by employers (e.g., data analytics, critical thinking, and problem solving). However, despite the rising demands in the emerging CF profession, there are limited computer forensics courses targeted at high school students that will lead them to become CF professionals. Furthermore, females’ interest in STEM in Oklahoma is approximately 14% in the last 10 years (Women in Computer Science, n.d[1].). The underrepresentation of women in STEM often stems from gender bias or inequitable opportunities for career exploration or advancement.  

As documented in schools, girls who express an interest in STEM subjects at a young age often tend to become discouraged by the time they enter high school, college, and/ or the workforce. When females actually earn STEM degrees, less than 8% remain in computer forensics– a condition that is exacerbated by the gender “pay gap” (the average difference between a man's and a woman's remuneration for the same level of expertise and responsibility) or conflicting expectations for women in society.

To this end, the STEM CareerBuilder ITEST Research and Development (R&D) grant awarded to the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) funded by the National Science Foundation (Award no. 1758975) has two main goals:
1. Explore strategic government-university-industry partnerships
2. Study how technology-enriched interventions can encourage and support high school girls with their pursuit of STEM education and careers, especially in the Computer Forensics area.

How is your ITEST Project impacting youth?

The participating girls learned about CF and several emerging careers in the field (e.g., gamification, AI, machine learning), jobs in the FBI and techniques such as DNA sampling, fingerprinting, CODIS database, and solved a crime—all virtually. They were highly engaged throughout the camp. They learned the virtual simulation fairly quickly and conducted virtual interviews with key witnesses and the prime murder suspects efficiently to solve crime logically. Unlike last two years, although, the presentations in 2020 lasted about 25 minutes each and were conducted using powerpoint slides, the results were as effective as previous years of the camp. In sum, despite the lack of face-to-face interactions, the girls really enjoyed the sessions and learned from them.  

A mentorship program has been planned and implemented for two years now. Below are some of the success stories shared by girls who felt that their mentor-mentee interactions and research experiences that have gone above and beyond their expectations.

[RK] completed her internship and research fellowship programs with her mentor, Dr. Rhonda Williams. Dr. Williams is a senior agent at the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation. RK’s project was about data mining juvenile databases. Her research paper was accepted by and presented at the AAFS conference in 2020. AAFS is an international conference with over 60,000 members. RK's presentation was attended by two hundred attendees. Her co-authored paper received a prestigious Emerging Forensic Scientist Award. (Working with Dr. Williams and presenting at an International Conference was unimaginable for someone who had been homeschooled in a family of 11 children. She cherished those rewarding opportunities. It not only helped her achieve her academic goals but also helped her grow personally and professionally.) 

[EY] is finishing her research fellowship with her mentor, Dr. Nalley who is a Chemistry professor at the University of Cameron. EY’s project is about nanotechnology. She has formed a very close working relationship with Dr. Nalley.     

[LD] just finished internship with the Office of Sustainability in Oklahoma City. She worked on the greenhouse gas project. Her supervisor who was very pleased with her.

What excites you most about the work you do?

The outputs and hopefully the outcomes of the project. The spirit and hard work of the project team and the girls.

Despite the challenges due to the pandemic, the summer camp and related project activities were well organized and implemented as planned largely due to the early, systematic planning, hard work of the PI, Dr. Joselina Cheng.

Research data were positive. Observations conducted by the researchers, teacher consultant, and external evaluator were positive. Pre-and-post surveys conducted by the researcher, Kirk Knestis, Ph.D. (Inciter) have found that overall, the CF initiative has been successful in increasing participating high school teachers’ preparedness to promote STEM; there is an increase in high school girls’ STEM interest and career awareness, girls have shown an increase in motivation and confidence to pursue STEM education-career pathways post high school and finally girls’ STEM knowledge, skills, and technical abilities have improved after attending the camp. (N=12 girls and N=4 teachers).

What do you think is the most important learning in this area based on your project work to-date?

Partnership is foundational to the project’s work and sustainability. The Oklahoma Women in Technology (OKWIT) President elect was the main speaker for the summer camp who inspired many girls.

The project team is forming an internship with the OK City Sustainability to work on a greenhouse gas project. The University of Cameron formed a fellowship to research nanotechnology. Like last year, an OSBI agent, Dr. Rhonda Williams, was actively involved in the academy activities this year. She helped with the planning for teacher and student training on DNA matching procedures and CODIS database searches among others. Dr. Therese Williams, an Information Systems professor at UCO also presented on CODIS database and matching processes. Figures below show a few presentation slides.

What strategies have you found most effective for sharing your project’s work and findings with broader audiences?

Early and often planning and follow-through! Despite the pandemic and limited manpower at UCO, the PI, Dr Josie Cheng spearheaded the summer camp and successfully completed it as planned via extensive outreach beginning in early spring. The PI, research consultant, and the evaluation team members corresponded regularly via emails and phone calls beginning early spring to plan for the summer camp activities and corresponding research and evaluation data collection processes. The PI also received on and off-camp technology assistance from a UCO graduate student which made the virtual summer camp highly successful.

Career options with Computer Forensics - presentation by a CF participant



To learn about the project:

MN Associates, Inc. (MNA) is a woman owned, research and evaluation firm based in Northern Virginia with clients across the country. MNA is headed by Kavita Mittapalli, Ph.D. who is supported by a team of five researchers and evaluators. MNA is the external evaluator of the CF project. For questions, please contact

[1] Women in computer science: Getting involved in STEM. (n.d.). Available at