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Inferences from STEM case studies (Pt. 3): NSF's S&T Centers Program

In 2011, AAAS completed a review of the aggregate activities of 17 NSF Science and Technology Centers (STCs) funded in three competitions held between 1998 and 2006, and operating from 2000—2009.  The STC program is the only NSF venture that requires pursuit, through "integrative partnerships," of four objectives—research, education, knowledge transfer, and diversity. The Centers cover a diverse array of scientific and technological fields and lines of inquiry, with great disciplinary breadth and a range of academic and nonacademic partners. 

The study drew on archival records; interviews with past and current NSF and STC participants; quantitative performance data; surveys of faculty and student participants; and independent, commissioned assessments of the contribution of STCs in selected scientific, technological, and educational fields. The most surprising findings, which are reported here, relate to education and diversity. 

STCs are held accountable for executing research-based activities with undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, as well as precollege teachers and students to facilitate outreach, recruitment, retention, degree-taking, and transition to the workforce. The foremost STC product is new M.S.- and Ph.D.-level scientists and engineers.  

Compared to their non-STC peers, students report that the advantages/benefits of STC affiliation— experiences, skills acquired, and professional opportunities—overwhelmingly outweigh the disadvantages/risks. In 2010, half of the STC alumni responding to an NSF survey held faculty appointments in institutions of higher education, with another third in postdoctoral positions. About two-thirds of the faculty members were on the tenure track, 7% had received tenure, and 4% were already full professors.

Although the results of STCs' efforts are modest in (quantitative) terms in regard to attracting individuals from groups not historically participating in science and engineering, once students enroll on campus, STCs are successful in competing for them. Indeed, their diversity is broader than the demographics of the disciplines from which the STCs recruit. Aggregating the three underrepresented minority groups (African American, Latino, and Native American), the 2000 cohort was the most racially and ethnically diverse undergraduate student population (roughly 43%, compared with 30% and 36% for the 2002 and 2005—2006 cohorts, respectively). The participation of women in the STCs is likewise strikingly higher than the national trend for STEM disciplines: parity with men at the undergraduate level, with a 1.5:1 ratio of undergraduate to graduate women and 2:1 ratio of female graduate students to female faculty. 

In addition, 54% of students found "refining my thinking about how gender, race, and ethnicity interact in teamwork" an advantage or benefit, while 88% found "providing contact with many center faculty/researchers" and "allowing exposure to researchers outside my home institution" a benefit.

Bottom line? These STCs embedded diversity at the core of their mission rather than marginalizing it.  Evidence of a continuing "legacy" effect on diversity also emerges from the AAAS and NSF student surveys. When students were asked, "Would you advise new graduate students to join an STC?" the responses "without a doubt" and "probably" yielded 90% agreement. Furthermore, NSF asked "Would you recommend the STC to prospective graduate students with similar interests?" and the response was 89% agreement. Regardless of ethnicity or gender, STC alumni and current students endorse the experience.

AAAS concluded that the STCs can be incubators for minority talent, demonstrating that a research field can diversify and become even more intellectually robust, productive, and attractive to students. Indeed, the study found that participation of women and ethnic/racial minorities at the undergraduate and graduate levels in STCs exceeds what is typically found in STEM departments.  Through educational outreach to middle and high school students (who are more diverse than the adult population), STCs represent a model that promises to change the face of the U.S. science and engineering workforce. 

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Daryl E. Chubin