Local networks of experts can show communities how to bring more women and minorities to science and technology careers, according to a new report released by AAAS’s Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity. It’s a strategy modeled after the well-known extension services approach pioneered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which link farmers to agricultural researchers.
Extension services offered by the USDA have helped integrate research findings with farmers’ practices in the field. Local experts are trained on disease threats and best practices in use of food and water, and the experts share the findings with farmers.
Similarly, through the “Extension Services” projects funded by the National Science Foundation, local networks of experts are trained to deliver data-driven best practices for attracting and retaining more women in science and engineering. In 2005-2009, the NSF’s Research on Gender in Science and Engineering Programs provided $2.5 million each to nine five-year projects, which targeted educators in after-school programs, science museums, and community colleges, as well as engineering and computer science educators.
It’s an experimental approach to attracting women and minorities into science and technical careers, and the NSF wanted to gauge how the projects were working. To find out, the NSF awarded the AAAS Capacity Center a grant to compile an interim report—“Lessons-Learned from 2005-2009 ‘Extension Services’ Grantees.”
The report gives the NSF an overview of how the Extension Services projects have been structured and what the projects have achieved. “Since this funding track was experimental, we really had little idea how it would work exactly: what types of projects would be funded, what communities would be served, or how extension services projects would be structured,” said Jolene Jesse, program director in the NSF’s Research on Gender in Science and Engineering.
The AAAS report provides advice for current and new recipients of the Extension Services grant and “broadens the program’s conception of the Extension Service track. The report will eventually inform evaluation efforts to show the actual impact of the projects within the overall Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program portfolio,” Jesse said.
Ruta Sevo, an independent consultant working the AAAS Capacity Center, interviewed the leaders of the nine ongoing projects to assess what was working well in their projects and what their challenges were as they put their grant proposals into action.
For instance, one of the NSF’s Extension Services projects is helping engineering departments introduce a new spatial skills course. “Students entering engineering do not all equally have strong spatial skills,” Sevo said. Students without strong spatial skills get discouraged and can’t get through the rest of the curriculum, but a short course in spatial skills can even the playing field. “Women and minorities are more likely to stay in engineering if they’ve taken this course,” said Sevo, who was program director of the NSF’s Research on Gender in Science and Engineering from 1998-2005.
In AAAS’s “Lessons-Learned” report, Sevo shared project leaders’ discoveries on how best to structure the Extension Services projects, how to train the local experts, and how to customize training materials.
“Project leaders tend to get so mired in the details of their own project that they don’t have time to look across other projects in the same program,” said Daryl Chubin, coauthor of the report and director of the AAAS Capacity Center. “This report conveys the projects’ variety and gauges their impact.”
Read more about the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.