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Sensitizing Software

Many don’t think about it, but race and gender affect software design, just as culture influences the way we use technology.  “The majority of software is designed by White men,” says Dr. Nichole Pinkard, assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “Designers design based on their experiences. Some educational software just doesn’t engage women or minorities.”
Pinkard, who says her goal is to “help come up with a design process that is more explicit,” is garnering attention for her research in this area, and she’s going further — designing some educational software based on cultural backgrounds. Her “Rapping Readers” educational software has met with good response among minority beginning readers.
Pinkard, though majoring in computer science, also has concentrated in education and psychology. She says an early career challenge came in just finding a college program where she could combine the study of culture in education with technology.
But perhaps her biggest career challenge to date came when she was working on her doctorate and was looking for research funding. Most of the emphasis seemed to be on science and technology, not education and technology.
“I really had to work hard at selling myself and my proposal,” she says.
After completing her doctorate, Pinkard initially did not aspire for an academic position.
“Some of my professors told me to think about staying in the field, that no one was doing what I was doing and that I’d have a chance to make a greater contribution,” Pinkard says. The two courses Pinkard teaches at the University of Michigan School of Education are geared to helping students understand the challenges of teaching educational software when classrooms are made up of young students with varying backgrounds.
Pinkard says she loves the combination of research and teaching, adding that colleagues are supportive, if a bit perplexed at exactly what she does. So far she has not experienced the legendary cutthroat competition in academia.
“I’m in such a young field that if someone gets recognition, it helps us all. And right now I’ve got a real niche,” she says.
Pinkard says her best career advice came from an associate professor at Northwestern University, Dr. Carol Lee. “She told me not to lose focus on the aspects of my research that makes you unique when you’re situating your work within existing frameworks,” Pinkard says.
Words of inspiration also come from her father. “He told me how proud he was of my Ph.D. work two months before his unexpected death,” she says. “Remembering his words always allows me to push forward and overcome obstacles.”  
— By Eleanor Lee Yates

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