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AAAS Center Gets Strong Reviews for Campus Efforts to Build S&E Capacity
The AAAS Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity was founded in 2004 as an experiment in higher education: It would provide consulting services to individual universities and colleges seeking to increase the participation of all students, especially women and underrepresented minorities, in science and engineering careers. It would do so in spite of a climate of legal uncertainty for such programs. And it would seek to be economically self-sustaining.
Today, a little more than two years after it was founded with a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Center has built some promising momentum.
It took on eight new clients in the year ending 30 June, disseminated its research findings at conferences, workshops and in publications and raised more than a half-million dollars in revenue, said center Director Daryl E. Chubin in a recent report to the Sloan Foundation. And there are signs that U.S. educators—0including officials at Harvard and the National Science Foundation—recognize that the expertise offered by the Center can provide support critical to the success of schools and students of every background.
"We understand the demographic, financial, and legal pressures that universities must balance," Chubin said in an interview. "The problems that emerge from imbalances require tailor-made solutions. 'Off-the-shelf' won't do. This is about local context, policies, and practices. The need for help from the outside is clear-and growing."
The Sloan Foundation awarded AAAS a three-year, $400,000 grant in 2004 to underwrite the new center's plan, believing that it could be self-supporting after three years. While the Center spent its first year laying a foundation, it generated more than $500,000 in revenue in its second year, Chubin reported.
Ted Greenwood, the Sloan program director who oversees the AAAS grant, said the center's second-year performance bodes well for the future. "We are hopeful that they have now become sufficiently visible and have developed a sufficiently positive reputation that their client base will continue to grow over time," he said.
AAAS has built a global reputation for its commitment to improving education in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and in recruiting future scientists, engineers and teachers from the broadest pool of talent. But the environment in recent years has grown more challenging.
Most broadly, "we have made the preparation for science and engineering careers in this country so unattractive that fewer and fewer Americans, of whatever background, are willing to put up with it and, therefore, choose other career paths," Greenwood said. Meanwhile, state-based campaigns against affirmative action and U.S. Supreme Court decisions that permitted, but limited, race-based admissions strategies chilled diversity efforts on many campuses.
"Some years ago, not only was bringing more women and underrepresented minorities into science and engineering an objective shared by essentially all universities and professional organizations, but also there were a large number of efforts underway to actually accomplish this objective," Greenwood said. "Progress was being made, albeit slowly. Today, although the commitment remains, many fewer programs exist, many that do exist target a much broader population, and the subject is much lower on the priority list of most institutions."
Added Chubin: "The environment on U.S. university campuses today is not supportive of diversity, though the word is invoked everywhere. Enrollment and degree trend data tell the story, especially for students from underrepresented groups in science and engineering: Higher education has become more an agent of stratification than a beacon of opportunity."
In that climate, he said, "access matters. Mentors matter. So do services that support student success, augmenting what does or does not happen in the classroom."
In the past two years, however, a growing consensus has emerged in industry, science, and education-and in both major political parties-that the United States must renew its commitment to training the STEM workforce or risk losing its status as a world innovation leader.
The Capacity Center takes that argument a step further: To achieve success in the recruitment and retention of all STEM students, programs must be tailored based on past experience and knowledge of current needs, and the program results must be closely evaluated.
Those principles have been put into action, for example, in the Center's engagement with a novel Harvard program, the Program for Research in Science and Engineering, or PRISE.
Harvard launched the program to establish "a stimulating, collegial, and diverse residential community for undergraduates" who were doing summer research in life science, physical science, applied science, mathematics, and engineering. The pilot program, held last summer, gave students a special immersion in professional life. Over the course of 10 weeks, the students lived in a single Harvard College residence hall; after a day of research-related work, they came home to evening programs and workshops on subjects ranging from the history of science to career options, lab management, and ethics.
Harvard awarded a nine-month grant to the AAAS Capacity Center to review the program and then to design a long-term study assessing its effectiveness. Thus far, the collaboration has been very effective, said PRISE Director Greg A. Llacer.
"Daryl Chubin and AAAS have been instrumental in two of our program goals: developing assessment and evaluation criteria that began in the planning stages of PRISE and gathering longitudinal data," Llacer said. "We are interested in the trajectory of the science undergraduates who go through our program and as well as determining if indeed programs intended to develop diversity and community among scientists early on such as PRISE are valuable to the participants."
Among other new clients the center signed on in its second year:
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the center a three-year Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) grant, totaling nearly $300,000, to assess a range of NSF-funded Alliance projects. These six projects support participation from high school to the workforce, with special emphasis on those groups not abundantly enrolled-women, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities.
Hewlett Packard awarded a grant for the Center's support of its "Technology for Teaching" program, which seeks to transform teaching and learning through the integration of technology in the classroom and beyond. Using tablet PCs, faculty in high school and college settings teach a STEM course designed to integrate student feedback and access to web-based resources. The Capacity Center is helping faculty, and in turn HP, measure the impact of their innovations on student learning.
"The Capacity Center's work with clients builds capacity for the long haul, changing structures within the department, college, or institution to better serve students and faculty," Chubin said. "This is more a change in orientation-valuing intervention programs, investing in students post-admission, committing to a measurement regimen that monitors progress, recognizing faculty champions-than a declaration by campus leaders. Talk is cheap. It must be connected to the reward structure. But first, the institution must ask for help. Then it is our job to be timely, trenchant, and discreet with our analysis and advice."
Added Greenwood: "The real issue is to make the S&T workforce look more like the American population and to give all Americans equal opportunity in these careers, as in all others. If the universities do not diversify their student bodies at all levels and their post-doc population and their faculties, the cost will be relying increasingly on non-Americans and perpetuating the lack of equal opportunity for all Americans."
Edward W. Lempinen
3 October 2006