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Experts Urge Universities to Study, Communicate Ways to Increase Minorities in S&T
While many colleges and universities have effective programs encouraging underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in science and engineering, participants in a National Academies workshop hosted at AAAS said there is insufficient formal research on the programs' short- and long-term success rates.
By establishing an interdisciplinary community through the use of peer-reviewed journals, formal research questions, and standardized research methods, educators and administrators would be better able to identify the factors contributing to the programs' successes, and perhaps replicate them in new environments, according to many of the participants.
"Several programs across the country have been able to increase the number of science PhDs earned by minorities," said Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity. "By using formal research methods, we will be able to determine why certain programs are more effective than others."
The 3-4 May workshop, organized by the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) under a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of General Medical Sciences. It brought together more than 200 participants from around the country including professors, university administrators, and officials from the NIH, U.S. Department of Education, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Science Foundation; and minority scientists.
The two-day workshop asked two main questions:
How can we determine which strategies are most effective at increasing minority participation in science and engineering? And how can universities best study and communicate these results?
"Over the past thirty years, we have seen tremendous gains in diversifying the scientific workforce," said Anthony DePass, a committee co-chair and associate dean of research at Long Island University, Brooklyn. "Now it's time to improve the interventions, often based on anecdotal evidence, by incorporating research-based findings."
Chubin, a member of the NRC workshop planning committee, believes the first step for a university to take to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in science and engineering classes is to determine at which stage students are encountering barriers.
While some colleges may be fighting an uphill battle against first-year students who are academically ill-prepared, he said, other colleges may be losing minority science students because of hostile campus cultures.
"Administrators need to figure out if interventions are not working because of poor pre-college preparation, insufficient financial aid, or poor academic support on campus," said Chubin. "While each of these issues is a potential barrier for minorities, as well as for other students, each requires a different set of solutions."
Claude Steele, the director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, said that when designing diversity-conscience programs and policies, those within universities must recognize how social identity influences a student's comfort level in a classroom.
Citing research in Science, Steele explained how a concept called "stereotype threat" can affect academic performance. A stereotype threat occurs when people believe their performance will be influenced by their social identity group, i.e., race, gender, or age.
Steele gave as an example a study in which a group of students were given a math test. Half of the female participants were told that while some research suggested that women perform below men in math, the test in front of them was designed so both genders would perform equally. Results from the exam showed that women who were told that the test results would not lead to gender differences in performance scored higher than women who were not told of the special design.
A second study involved the presentation of a university's engineering program promotional materials to groups of men and women. When asked about the number of women represented in comparison to the number of men in the video—three men and one woman, the female viewers were more perceptive of the gender inequality.
"It's one thing to integrate, but it's a whole other thing to create an environment where everyone can flourish," said Steele, suggesting that professors and administrators need to be attentive to feelings of isolation among underrepresented minorities.
In addition to programs within institutions, intra-institutional programs may increase the impact of a program by increasing the available resources.
In 1998, the National Science Foundation established Alliances for Graduate Education in the Professoriate (AGEP), a program to significantly increase the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In addition, it sought to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities entering the professoriate.
To increase minority participation in the sciences, the AGEP program cultivates collaborations among undergraduate and doctoral-granting institutions and promotes diversity-conscious institutional and departmental policies and practices. This will ensure that minority graduate students are able to get the academic and psychosocial support needed to complete a PhD.
In its first year, 1998, the NSF awarded eight universities nearly $2.5 million in AGEP grants to develop innovative, research-based campus programs. Today, AGEP funds 22 alliances that include over 80 universities.
"AGEP is about institutional change and encouraging institutions to analyze their policies and practices to make sure they are not acting as barriers to success for some of their students," said Yolanda George, deputy director of the AAAS Education and Human Resources directorate. "In addition, institutions within the AGEP program collect data that are analyzed and communicated within institutions, providing insight into what is working and what is not."
Many of the participants in the National Academies workshop agreed that one of the most difficult elements of creating successful interventions on campus is getting administrators to buy in and institutionalize programs with dedicated funds, as opposed to soft funds from outside donors.
David Burgess, a professor of biology at Boston College, said that creating successful programs like the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program at the University of California, Davis; and grant programs supported by the Sloan Foundation, are not easy.
"The most successful, proven programs are often expensive, small, comprehensive, and for the most part, not easily cloned," said Burgess. "Quite simply, there needs to be more national coordination and an increase in data collection to see what separates these programs from the rest."
Burgess highlighted several "programs that likely work," including initiatives from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Ford Foundation Fellows, and minority-serving societies including the AAAS Minority Scientists Network.
While many of the programs are at the undergraduate and graduate levels of science education, Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, emphasized the importance of supporting science in middle and high schools.
"It's about intervening at the right time, to the right person, by the right person, in the right way," said Zerhouni during a plenary lecture. "By the time the scientist gets to NIH, they usually have already made their decision to pursue a career in science."
Following the United States Supreme Court decisions in 2003 affirming the value of diverse learning environments but striking down formulaic approaches to undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan, many workshop participants cited a reluctance of university officials to support diversity programs.
"There is a clear backlash against affirmative action playing out at the state levels," said Chubin, who co-authored Standing Our Ground, a resource for educators following the University of Michigan decisions.
While much of the backlash on campus comes from deliberate attempts to resist diversity, Carol Burger, an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Tech, believes that colleges need to do a better job of communicating effective and ineffective strategies to overcoming these obstacles.
One solution is to create more peer-reviewed journals with research specifically geared to diversity in science.
"We need a place where people can write about what works and what does not work," said Burger, who is the editor-in chief of Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, an example of a peer-reviewed journal focusing on education and diversity. "If we don't treat the issue seriously, we are destined to do the same things over and over again."
12 June 2007