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Mentoring Is the Key to Increasing Minority and Women’s Participation in STEM Education, Researchers Say at the Emerging Researchers Network Conference

When computer science professor Juan Gilbert goes into an elementary-school classroom to talk about his work with students, most of them have never considered being a scientist before, and have never met one. But after one hour-long talk describing some of his work in human-centered computing, such as flying drones with brainwaves, their teachers report a turn-around in their perceptions, Gilbert said. “They say, ‘That’s cool,’ and are interested in doing science too.”

“I like to say, ‘If they see it, they can be it,’” Gilbert said. “You can’t underestimate the power of a role model.” Gilbert, who is the chair of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department at the University of Florida, shared this story on the final night of the sixth Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) held 25-27 February in Washington, D.C.

The ERN conference is co-sponsored by AAAS and the National Science Foundation (NSF). It had more than 1,000 participants from 229 colleges and universities, 45 of which are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). About 70% of the participants are undergraduate and graduate student researchers who receive federal support for minorities, women, or students with disabilities. More than 600 gave oral or poster presentations at the conference.

“For many of you, this is a transformative moment,” since it may be a student’s first opportunity to present research at a national conference, said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs and one of the conference organizers. In fact, almost half of the previous undergraduate ERN attendees surveyed who were junior and seniors when they presented reported they had entered a STEM graduate program, she said.

Those numbers are far outside the norm. According to 2014 U.S. Census data, about 10% of the US population identified themselves as African American and 17% identified themselves as Hispanic. But in 2012, only 7% of science and engineering Ph.D.s and 14% of science and engineering master’s degrees were awarded to underrepresented minorities, a category that includes blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Pacific Islanders. That’s only a slight improvement over 2000, when the numbers were 6% and 10% respectively, according to NSF statistics.

Gilbert’s passion for helping bring more minorities into science began when he was earning his master’s degree in the early 1990s. “One day, I looked up and realized I was the only black person in my graduate program. And I said, ‘If I get my Ph.D., I’m not going to let that happen again.’”

Gilbert has been highly successful at improving that situation. Since becoming a professor in 2000, Gilbert has supervised 18 doctoral students, 53 master’s students and five post-doctoral students, almost all of whom are minorities and/or women. When he was recruited to Clemson University to chair the human-centered computing division in the school of computing, he also made it a priority to hire other minority faculty. He was so successful that “at one time, we had over 10% of the nation’s African American Ph.D.s in computer science in one place,” he said.

Gilbert was honored with an award for mentoring from President Obama in 2012 and was chosen for the 2014 AAAS Mentor Award for his efforts to significantly increase the number of African Americans pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science. He is also a 2015-2106 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador.

Juan Gilbert


Juan Gilbert, chair of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department at the University of Floridaspeaks to attendees of the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. | Michael Colella

Mentoring is important because it works, said Becky Wai-Ling Packard, professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, who spoke at a pre-conference meeting for principal investigators and project directors. Packard recently published a guide book for faculty and administrators on how to mentor underrepresented students in STEM. Her research found that students who are mentored are more likely to stay in STEM majors. So why don’t more institutions encourage it?

There are some challenges, Packard said. One is the need to provide candid feedback to students for mentoring to be effective. Many advisors and professors feel uncomfortable doing so because they don’t know how to deliver negative messages constructively, and so may avoid telling students what they need to do to improve. Another challenge is that the overall academic climate the students experience may not be supportive. Small, day-to-day interactions are also important for encouraging students to stay in STEM and academia, she said.

“I suggest colleagues practice difficult dialogues, where they talk not only about student-faculty interactions, but also student-student, faculty-student, and faculty-staff interactions that are challenging, and lead us to dig deep into our belief systems about what kind of workplace we want to create and live in,” Packard said.

Spelman senior and computer science major Simone Smarr said she gained confidence about entering a PhD program from having women professors in her department. A first-time ERN conference attendee, she said she liked how the participants were “people from different backgrounds, minority backgrounds, and especially from the HBCUs, like me, who are doing cutting-edge research.” Smarr said she also liked seeing research others were doing in different fields, like biology and chemistry, and being able to make connections between their work and hers. 

And while she’s attended conferences for women in computing and minorities in science, the conference she’s really hoping to attend doesn’t exist yet. “I’m waiting for the day I can attend a conference for black women in computing,” she said.