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Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity Enters Ambitious New Phase
Daryl E. Chubin
After an initial three-year start-up period, the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity has emerged as an economically self-sustaining enterprise on track to increase the number of U.S. citizens in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. One particular goal for the Center is attracting and retaining women and people of color to these fields.
The Center launched in the summer of 2004 under Director Daryl E. Chubin with a $400,000 grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Since that time, the Center has served 13 clients, including Harvard, Stanford, Louisiana State University, the University of Washington, the National Science Foundation, the Connecticut Academy for Education, and Hewlett Packard.
From the start, it was clear that the Center would specialize in on-site campus visits to clients as part of its ordinary operating procedures. What was not clear, however, is that reaching out to one institution at a time would be both costly and ineffective.
"The first year, I had two dozen serious prospective client inquiries and discussions, but zero clients," said Chubin. Based on these results, Chubin and his colleagues reconsidered their original approach.
"We decided that it might make sense to go to a third-party sponsor with a program that has defined a cluster of performers, and be funded by that sponsor to work directly with those institutions," he added.
One such sponsor is the National Science Foundation (NSF) Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program, the goal of which is to get more women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities into computing. According to NSF Program Manager Janice E. Cuny, the number of freshman who want to major in computer science is down a stunning 60% since 2000.
"This is a huge problem, as the information technology (IT) sector is key to our economic prosperity" Cuny said. "At the same time that predictions show shortfalls in the IT workforce, women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and persons with disabilities remain significantly underrepresented in computing. Since they are about 70% of the population, they are a prime target for increasing our enrollment."
She explained that the individual NSF grants awarded for the BPC program include an assessment and evaluation component. "Daryl does site visits. In off-site workshops for project evaluators, he helps define metrics, looks over their plans, and gives them suggestions. People get a lot of context-specific feedback."
There are nine different alliances and about 75 academic institutions directly involved in the BPC programs, Cuny said. In addition, many more schools are involved indirectly, so the overall impact is far-reaching, extending into the community even to middle-school students.
"Efforts must be K-16, or systemic," said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. "Higher education receives the 'products' of earlier segments of the system. Unless we think harder about how to make the connections, students will not be 'college-ready.' The Center's vision is systemic—and aids institutions in realizing theirs must be, too."
Ted Greenwood, project director at the Sloan Foundation, said that the Center is working on a long-term problem and is making a positive difference.
"We at the Sloan Foundation were uncertain at the beginning whether there would be a sufficient number of universities wanting and willing to pay for help on issues like improving the representation of underrepresented minorities and of women, and improving the completion rates for all students. The Center has found a way to attract paying clients and is well on the way toward establishing itself as an organization recognized for making positive contributions in those areas."
The growing client base the Center has enjoyed over the past two years has been accomplished despite an unfavorable legal climate. For one thing, most institutions do not want to admit that they have a diversity problem. Nor do they wish to spend money on the problem.
"General counsels are paid to keep their institutions out of harm's way," Chubin said. "For the most part, they have decided that the best way to reduce their risk is to back away from a lot of these programs."
Currently, the Center enjoys successful individual contracts with large research institutions such as Louisiana State University and Harvard, and is self-supporting, with almost $1 million in projects going forward, including supplements and renewals.
Chubin thinks the Center has made a real difference on campuses where they have worked. Other institutions now can adapt lessons learned in these campuses to their own institutions, multiplying the effects overall.
One such lesson Chubin points to is from Harvard. Here, the Center was able to show the importance of a residential 10-week summer bridge program for undergraduates. This kind of opportunity—along with a research internship, some solid academic advising, and excellent mentoring—succeeds in creating a community that goes far in reinforcing a student's interest in pursuing a career in science.
What is especially fascinating about this finding, he added, is that student needs at Harvard are fundamentally the same at Louisiana State University.
"It seems that all undergraduates majoring in science—whether in a private or public institution—need a research experience and more, which institutions can provide to help students succeed," Chubin explained.
"There is something about being connected to others who share your aspirations about science that goes beyond whatever you learn in the classroom and laboratory. Further, the students who profited the most are those who are the most underrepresented in their fields—people of color and women."
According to Chubin, the real question here is whether science and engineering are going to be content on relying on foreign talent to populate their graduate schools and faculties, or whether they are going to cultivate domestic talent as well.
"Everyone I know who has succeeded in science or engineering has had help from someone else," Chubin said. "These programs are formalizing that principle. They are saying that there is nothing wrong with getting help and we are here to help you succeed."
14 December 2007