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Broadening participation in STEM: How to sustain programs

Earlier this month in Portland, Oregon, the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) hosted meeting of the community associated with CE21—Computing Education for the 21st Century. From the variety of panels and presentations, one I found notable for its clear-throated, savvy advice was offered by Lucy Sanders, CEO and Co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), which is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. 

Sanders has worked in R&D and executive (VP) positions at AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Bell Labs, and Avaya Labs for over 20 years, where she specialized in systems-level software and solutions (multi-media communication, and customer relationship management.  Lucy is a recipient—along with NCWIT co-founders Robert Schnabel and Telle Whitney—of the Computing Research Association's 2012 A. Nico Habermann Award.

What follows is an interview with Sanders on her prescription for sustaining innovative programs in one STEM area—computing (a mix of computer science, computer engineering, and information technology). While NCWIT's focus is women and girls, Sanders thinks "organizationally" about serving those underrepresented, under-informed, and under-developed as skilled talent who could contribute to the STEM workforce.

AAAS MemberCentral: In your view, what constitutes sustainability of a program?
Lucy Sanders, CEO and Co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT):
Sustainability is about more than asking people for money. It is also about (a) growing demand for the program; (b) program structure, and its ability to grow efficiently and quickly (especially through program partnerships, of which NCWIT has over 350, including the Academic Alliance with 250 college and university members); and (c) how the program is described and marketed.

AAAS MC: Let's look at the NCWIT "Aspirations in Computing" Talent Development Program as an example. Aspirations in Computing honors young women at the high school level for their computing-related achievements and interests. Recipients are selected for their computing and IT aptitude, leadership ability, academic history, and plans for post-secondary education.
  This program is demand-driven.  Aspirations began as a grass roots program originating with both young women themselves, and from our NCWIT member organizations, who serve as valuable partners in our efforts.  This is the equivalent to being customer-focused in the business world.  Grass roots demand and organic growth are sure signs that programs have the potential to be sustained.

AAAS MC: What's the structure of the program?
Sanders: Aspirations utilizes a "franchise" model. NCWIT packages tools and technical infrastructure and provides support, NCWIT member organizations adopt the model, tune it to their own local context, and in doing so, create a national regional "affiliates" structure that has grown to recognize over 1000 young women annually in just three years. Franchise models are cost-sharing models, and our members take on some of the cost. NCWIT shares this cost with them by providing tool kits, trophies, application/judging technical infrastructure, etc. As a side note, this also builds ownership in member organizations as well, another important ingredient of sustainability. Franchise models also allow our members to act locally with the knowledge that what they are doing engenders significant outcomes nationally.

AAAS MC: What other hints can you suggest to STEM professionals seeking to sustain programs beyond their initial sponsorship?
Sanders: Watch your language. Sushi is cold dead fish, but that is not an appealing description. It matters what we call our programs. The Aspirations Program has morphed from an awards program, small in scope, to a national talent development program that spans high school and college, soon to reach into middle school.

AAAS MC: You've yet to mention the essential ingredient that program leaders must have—resources.
Sanders: Yes, we do have to raise money. It's hard work, and the time to start is not when you are running out of money, but rather when you first secure some. Use existing funds to leverage others. Make it a part of your daily workload. Reach out once a day to tell somebody what you are doing, to meet for coffee, to have a phone call, and build relationships as you go. Be a good spender. Tell your funders how their funds are being used and solicit their feedback.

AAAS MC: A closing word of encouragement?
Sanders: I am a fan of large national broadening participation efforts, and particularly of the public-private partnership. Public funds, like those from NSF, can be used to leverage corporate funds, and vice versa. NSF is central to program growth, but cannot suffice for the long haul. While funded by NSF, however, a program evolves from operations to capacity-building and the establishment of infrastructure. Then other sponsors must join. The core of sustainability is the public-private partnership model.

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