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SEA Change Program Aims to Transform Diversity Efforts in STEM

University of Warwick students
SEA Change is a new assessment and certification program that seeks to create transformative institutional change to foster diversity in STEM. | University of Warwick

AAAS is working with colleges and universities to create institutional systems to improve the outcomes and opportunities for underrepresented and underserved groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Under the new program led by AAAS, educational institutions commit to removing barriers to STEM achievement for women, minorities and people with disabilities through participating in a program of voluntary self-assessment.

“We have been able to advance in science and technology because of people, who generate ideas, who provide the creative spark that expands our economy and who ensure increased productivity as well as improved health, security and overall quality of life,” wrote Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS’ Education and Human Resources programs, and Paula Rayman, professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell and advisory board chair of the SEA Change program. “But our nation has so far failed to use all of the talent available to us.”

Despite decades of progress, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are still underrepresented in STEM. Underrepresented groups make up 31% of the population, earn 21% of the bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering and 13% of the doctorates in science and engineering and hold just 11% of jobs in science and engineering fields, according to Emilda Rivers of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics at the National Science Foundation.

A new study from the Pew Research Center also finds that underrepresented minorities report facing discrimination or isolation at work. In an interview with Pew, Malcom cited a 1976 study she co-authored which found reported feelings of isolation in STEM because of race – experiences which are still being reported today, she said. Sixty-two percent of black workers in STEM report facing racial discrimination at work, according to the Pew study, released Jan. 9.

NSF Minority Data
Despite increased representation of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in science, those groups remain underrepresented among STEM degree holders.  | National Science Foundation

Although women earn more than half of bachelor’s degrees in the United States, they are underrepresented among STEM graduates, particularly in physics, engineering and computer science, and hold just 30% of jobs in science and engineering fields, Rivers said.

One in nine scientists under the age of 76 reports having a disability, Rivers added.

To recruit, retain and advance the full range of talent, SEA Change – short for STEM Equity Achievement – calls upon colleges and universities to take an institutional approach, said Beth Ruedi, AAAS project director.

“This is about fixing the system. This is not about intervening on behalf of the people who the system has been negatively impacting,” Ruedi said.

To participate in SEA Change, colleges and universities – or individual departments – gather data, including those related to institutional climate; develop goals and allocate resources to improve their metrics in a range of areas, such as recruitment and hiring of faculty, and matriculation and graduation rates of undergraduate and graduate students.

As the host organization, AAAS will manage the review and assessment of the project. Systematic transformation efforts of participating institutions will be appraised as part of the assessment, and institutions will be awarded bronze, silver or gold ratings for their efforts – similar to the rating system used to recognize and encourage energy-efficient buildings.

Institutions will not compete against one another, organizers said. Instead, SEA Change is a collaborative program, with bronze award metrics favoring those institutions that share their best practices with others, said Sarah Dickinson Hyams, the head of equality charters at Equality Challenge Unit, which administers a United Kingdom-based program on which SEA Change is based.

“We want everyone to succeed,” Ruedi added.

SEA Change is not about achieving particular numbers, organizers stressed. The higher education ecosystem in the United States is a complex one, with thousands of two- and four-year colleges, including women’s colleges, historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions. With different institutions starting from different baselines, applicants will instead develop their own goals.

SEA Change draws heavily from the experience of the Athena SWAN gender equality charter, established in the United Kingdom in 2005 to address the underrepresentation of women in science leadership roles. Since its implementation, Athena SWAN has increased the proportion of women on scientific committees and improved transitions for female postdoctoral researchers into academic posts, according to Equality Challenge Unit.

Initial stages of a U.S. version of the program began in April 2016, when AAAS convened a workshop with eight educational institutions to assess interest, identify challenges and collect initial data on gender, race and ethnicity and disability, leading to a December 2016 report.

An October 2017 workshop brought together representatives from institutions interested in submitting applications for the pilot round of SEA Change awards. Applications will be due in the fall of 2018, and awards are expected to be announced in early 2019.