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Pushing Underrepresented Students up the STEM Ladder.

In recent years, academic leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have begun to deal with the long-running lack of diversity among undergraduates in STEM subjects. But the relative success in encouraging diversity at one level has only served to emphasize the persistence of the issue higher in the educational enterprise, and ultimately in the job market. While women and racial and ethnic minorities have made progress in finding placements in STEM majors at the undergraduate level, they have largely failed to maintain that progress at the graduate level and beyond.

Now, fresh efforts are under way to reduce, if not eliminate, the loss of women and minorities further up the academic ladder and in high-level jobs in universities and industry. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and professional societies representing STEM fields have begun a series of initiatives to mitigate the problem.

Data gathered by the NSF's Science and Engineering Indicators program indicate the extent of the problem. "With a few exceptions, the statistics show that the proportion of women enrolled in STEM programs goes down, from the undergraduate level to the graduate level and the doctoral level," says Nimala Kannankutty, deputy head of NSF's division of graduate education. "And the same trend applies to underrepresented minorities."

The proportion of women varies among scientific disciplines. "In some, such as the biosciences, it's over 50 percent at all levels," Kannankutty says. "But engineering and physical sciences are considered low-participation subjects for women." In mathematics and statistics, for example, women make up 30 to 40 percent of participants at the doctoral level. But for physics, it's less than 20 percent. As a result, the universities that award more than 20 PhDs in physics annually would need about 20 percent more women and 50 percent more underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in their graduate programs to mirror the proportions at the undergraduate level. "All this despite the fact that the number of women undergraduates [in STEM fields] has grown over time," Kannankutty adds.

The need for an effort to improve those individuals' access to graduate programs--and, as a result, to the opportunity to work in high-level

academic and industrial research--goes beyond the basic desire for the new approaches to STEM subjects that different groups of practitioners can bring. It's driven by a need for more STEM graduates overall. In recent years, the number of applicants to STEM graduate programs at leading American research universities has declined by more than 20 percent, partly because of a fall in applications from overseas students. Leading research universities have reported a decline of 20-25 percent in such applications during the 2017-2018 academic year alone. Thus American universities, and the companies that hire their STEM master's and doctoral-level graduates, need substitutes to maintain the quality of their research. Women and underrepresented minorities can provide the numbers, if enough are encouraged to pursue graduate studies.

The issue has particular resonance with the NSF, as it's the federal agency responsible for overseeing scientific research. In 2016, the agency set up an effort to encourage diversity, called Inclusion Across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science, or INCLUDES. The program "was conceived as a sustained effort--a recognition that a problem as complex as the need to broaden participation in STEM requires a long-term, collaborative approach," says NSF director France Cordova. "It addresses populations largely missing in the current science and engineering enterprise. Their inclusion is essential in helping the US maintain its position as the world's leader in innovation. Through NSF INCLUDES, we are funding researchers and others who have great proposals that would move the needle."

In September 2018, the program announced a of series grants to achieve its goals. Prominent among them is a five-year grant of $10 million to the Inclusive Graduate Education Network (IGEN), a newly created alliance of leading scientific societies "to eliminate participation disparities in physical science disciplines by women and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities." The five participants in IGEN--the American Astronomical Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Physical Society, and the Materials Research Society--aim to achieve their goal by applying lessons from a relatively small-scale effort created by the American Physical Society (APS).

The APS Bridge program was designed "to establish a set of programs and related efforts to help under-represented minority undergraduates transition to doctoral degree-granting programs and obtain PhD degrees in physics." Since 2012, the program has established six "bridge sites," in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and California, that provide coursework, research experiences, and substantial mentoring to enable students who either did not apply to graduate school or were not admitted through traditional graduate school admissions to get into graduate programs. "Having seen that the program can be successful in obtaining support from physics departments across the country, we are confident that the approach can yield similar results across the spectrum of STEM fields, as represented by our partners in IGEN," says APS CEO Kate Kirby.

The program now being adapted for IGEN will operate at several levels of the educational enterprise. At the undergraduate level, participants will aim to improve the mentoring of undergraduates; modify admissions practices for graduate education, for example by eliminating the requirement for graduate record exams, which research suggests can be poor predictors of students' success in graduate programs; and recruit large numbers of underrepresented minority students who would otherwise not enter graduate studies. Students already in graduate courses, meanwhile, will receive help from multiple mentors, to ensure that the students have monitoring and intervention at the earliest stages of their studies and to focus their attention on graduate student life. The organization also aims to enhance the professional development of graduate students to optimize their transition into the professional worlds of academia and industry.

Organizers of IGEN expect the program to benefit from a sense of communal sharing; a similar sense has emerged as a major factor in the APS Bridge Program. "When we started the program six years ago, we had no idea how much community support would materialize," says Theodore Hodapp, director of project development at the APS and now project lead for IGEN. "Collective impact is a growing trend in nonprofits, and it is good to see efforts like this succeeding, as they help all of us meet our missions and goals," says Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society. NSF's Kannankutty agrees. IGEN members "are trying to work together to share best practices," she says. "It's the idea of collective impact, which is the focus of NSF."

The Amtterican Physical Society, meanwhile, summarizes the potential for the IGEN program. "Expanding the applicant pool to include greater numbers of women and UREM students," it states, "will simultaneously ensure a robust population of qualified STEM graduate students while erasing long-entrenched disparities in the sciences."

Peter Gwynne, Contributing Editor

Boston, Massachusetts
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Gwynne, Peter; Gobble, MaryAnne M.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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