Three universities are embarking on a program designed to recognize effective institutional efforts to attract, retain, and advance underrepresented students and faculty engaged in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Boston University; the University of California, Davis; and the University of Massachusetts Lowell have been selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as the first institutional awardees in the SEA Change program, an ambitious effort to solve a longstanding problem.
Joyce Wong, professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering at Boston University and the director of the university’s ARROWS (Advance, Recruit, Retain & Organize Women in STEM) program, said that underrepresentation of women and minorities in the sciences has long been apparent.
“Even if it’s not well appreciated, there are definite institutional barriers or cultural norms that we need to recognize” that have prevented potential talent from pursuing and persevering in STEM, said Wong, who led her university’s participation in SEA Change.
SEA Change, short for STEM Equity Achievement, aims to expand the talent pool for the STEM workforce by calling on colleges and universities to take steps to identify and remove barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM.
The nation is facing grand challenges that require scientific expertise, Wong said. Addressing these complex issues “requires all talent to be on board, and we simply can’t afford to lose any talent.”
Shirley Malcom, AAAS’s senior adviser and director of SEA Change, said in May 9 testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that the initiative will offer pathways previously unpaved for those from all backgrounds to pursue STEM.
“How do we ensure a steady flow of talent for STEM while also responding to the larger need for a workforce and citizenry with knowledge and skills to address emerging challenges and opportunities? We can only do this by expanding that pool of talent, tapping into the vast well of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities currently underrepresented in STEM,” Malcom said.
SEA Change organizers emphasize that it differs from intervention programs that step in on behalf of an individual. Instead, the voluntary SEA Change program supports and recognizes institutions as they transform their policies and practices to ensure that all can thrive.
The program is driven by data and goal-setting, a focus on continuous progress and a spirit of collaboration.
“It is a transformative national vision,” said Paula Rayman, chair of the SEA Change advisory board.
Inspired by the Athena SWAN charter established in the United Kingdom in 2005 to improve gender equity in STEM, SEA Change presented its first awards to the three universities at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting.
The awards require institutions to conduct a data-based self-assessment to appraise their institutional makeup, policies, and culture and identify knowledge gaps and barriers. Each institution then develops detailed action plans.
The process “certainly does shine a light on what it is that we are doing right now, which allows us to essentially establish a baseline upon which we can reflect and improve,” said Philip H. Kass, vice provost of academic affairs at UC Davis. Kass said that the university aims to address the makeup of its faculty. Its action plan includes formalizing the use of diversity statements in faculty hiring.
The SEA Change process is anything but “cookie-cutter,” added Wong. Instead, the self-assessment process “forces an institution to find root causes that are specific to that institution,” she said. Boston University’s self-assessment process revealed an opportunity: increasing diversity of graduate students in Ph.D. programs in STEM.
By developing individual goals, SEA Change institutions are particularly invested in holding themselves accountable, said Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation at UMass Lowell. Her university is implementing training to help faculty recognize subtle instances of discrimination and learn how best to respond.
The awards require participating institutions to improve. Institutions must reapply at least every five years to maintain their award or earn a higher award. The three universities earned bronze awards, but SEA Change aims to bestow silver and gold awards to bronze winners that demonstrate exemplary progress. Individual colleges and departments within universities will soon be able to apply for bronze awards under criteria developed in coordination with STEM disciplinary societies. To progress to silver and gold, universities will need to show a commitment to change by earning several departmental bronze awards.
“One of the great things about SEA Change is that you don’t get to rest on your laurels. There has to be accountability,” said Kass. “We cannot just assume that because we improved things in the past that they’re going to remain improved in the future.”
In keeping with the program’s commitment to collaboration, SEA Change institutions do not compete against each other; they strive to improve themselves. The gold award metrics make collaboration a tenet: Institutions will need to demonstrate instances of actively assisting other institutions by sharing their own systemic diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
UMass Lowell’s Chen noted the importance of momentum as more institutions formally adopt the SEA Change principles and work toward the awards.
AAAS is currently working with a second cohort of applicants in addition to developing two other facets of the SEA Change program: the SEA Change Community, a group of stakeholders committed to diversity in STEM, and the SEA Change Institute, a repository of research and training materials.
“It is really through the sustained, continuous, collected efforts of everyone that we can move the needle forward,” said Wong. “Everyone’s trying to lift everyone up, and it really is a sea change.”
[Associated image: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis]
A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the May 31, 2019 issue of Science.