Student questions about choosing a major and a career path were the basis of a pilot research project Pruthikrai (Winn) Mahatanankoon began several years ago. His project, supported by a University Research Grant, resulted in the creation of a skills evaluation test that students can use to help them select a major within the School of Information Technology. Although the findings are preliminary, “personalized mentoring and support for students really helps them to succeed,” said Mahatanankoon. “I feel it is very important to take the time to talk with students individually, listen to their concerns and answer their questions about coursework, study skills or selecting a career path.”

As an associate professor in the School of Information Technology, he also has a deep commitment to seeing a greater diversity of students getting degrees in information systems, computer science and telecommunications management. That commitment to student success has led to campus-wide recognition for teaching and research excellence. Recently, he and two faculty colleagues received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that will provide scholarships for students from underrepresented groups who are pursuing information technology (IT) degrees.

Mahatanankoon received his bachelor’s degree from King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in his native Thailand, master’s degrees from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, and his Ph.D from Claremont Graduate University in California. He has been a faculty member in the School of Information Technology since 2002. Much of his teaching and research focus on Internet technology usage and abuse in the workplace, mobile commerce, and management of information technology professionals.

“During my time here, I have taught a wide variety of courses in the School of Information Technology,” he said. “That has given me a better understanding of student learning styles and the overall education that our students are getting. Because technology changes so rapidly, course material at all levels needs to be constantly revised and enhanced to keep pace.”

His dedication to teaching and research on emerging technologies and management issues has garnered him a number of awards. In 2006, he received the School of Information Technology Outstanding Junior Faculty Award and the Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award. He was also given the University’s Research Initiative and Teaching Initiative Awards in 2008. Although the awards are nice, Mahatanankoon feels that his latest project is one of the most important of his career. Important because it directly benefits students by fostering a supportive learning environment.

Along with Illinois State colleagues Saad El-Zanati, a professor of mathematics, and Willy Hunter, an associate professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology (CeMaST), he applied for and secured nearly $600,000 in NSF grant funding to support a new scholarship program in the School of Information Technology. The NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) grant will provide financial support for academically talented students from underrepresented groups. Four-year scholarships of up to $20,000 will be available for incoming freshmen who plan to major in computer science, information systems or telecommunications management. Students in the Department of Mathematics who have a minor in those disciplines are also eligible for the four-year scholarships. Transfer students can receive up to $5,000 per year under the program.

“The grant funding really enhances our efforts to recruit and retain more academically talented African American, Hispanic, female and physically challenged students,” said Mahatanankoon. “The School of Information Technology’s strong reputation played a key role in helping us secure the grant. Illinois State offers a great education at an affordable price and it is our hope to alleviate some of the financial burden for these talented students as they pursue much needed STEM-related careers.”

The S-STEM grant supports activities for recruitment, retention and placement of scholarship recipients in the workforce. Mahatanankoon will work with Illinois State’s Chicago Teacher Pipeline Project to recruit students from the Chicago Public Schools. A collaboration with Heartland Community College will spread the word about the scholarships for transfer students. On-campus retention efforts for scholarship recipients will include faculty and peer mentoring and active participation in a student cohort within the School of Information Technology. Advisory boards within the school, comprised of information technology professionals, will provide support for career placement efforts. “Working on the NSF grant for student scholarships has been really satisfying for me,” he said. “Giving students the support they need to succeed in their majors and in their careers is something I feel very strongly about.”

Mahatanankoon is hopeful that shifts in the way people view the information technology profession, along with concerted efforts to recruit students from underrepresented groups, will lead to more diversity within the American IT workforce. “In the U.S., a large number of the students studying information technology are white males,” said Mahatanankoon. “In Thailand, for example, a lot more women are entering the IT field. The gender imbalance in the U.S. may be due to the stereotype of IT professionals. That is a perception of the field that needs to be changed. The rapid growth of mobile computing applications, such as smart phones and other wireless technology, is helping to fight the masculine, geek and nerd stereotype.”

During the five-year period of the grant, he will be working hard to bring about that change. He noted that he draws inspiration from his parents who believed strongly in the power of education, and especially from his father, who for years has made financial contributions to support financially and physically disadvantaged students in Thailand.