You can tell from the way Dr. Al-Aakhir Ahad Rogers speaks about his work as a senior processing engineer at Draper Laboratory that he loves his career.
A 2011 recipient of a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of South Florida, Rogers, 30, regularly shares his passion for his profession with elementary school students. He explains to them how he makes sensory components used in items that range from laptop computers and gaming devices to airbags and seismographic equipment.
When he tells the students he makes gyroscopes, he uses an example they can all relate to — the Wii.
“I tell them I can make a device for a joystick,” Rogers said in a recent interview with Diverse.
Rogers is one of more than 5,000 young STEM scholars featured in a new 756-page National Science Foundation book titled “Underrepresented Minorities: A Rich Pool of STEM Talent. Who Will Do Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in the Future?” A subtitle of the book seeks to answer that question as such: “5,000+ Young Stem Scholars Point to LSAMP!”
LSAMP is the acronym for the 21-year-old Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation. The program, currently funded at $45 million annually and serving some 220,000 students, supports what the NSF refers to as “sustained and comprehensive approaches to broadening participation (in STEM education) at the baccalaureate level.”
Rogers agreed that he owes his professional success to LSAMP. In fact, Rogers says, it was through LSAMP during his undergraduate years at North Carolina A&T State University that he was introduced to Dr. Ashanti Johnson-Turner, a pioneering African-American female oceanographer who recruited Rogers to attend USF through the Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship program, which LSAMP also supports.
“Would I be where I am were it not for the Bridge to the Doctorate, LSAMP?” Rogers said. “Not at all.”
Legacy of Success
LSAMP has long been regarded as a program that produces the kind of results that more than justify its existence.
For instance, a 2006 Urban Institute evaluation, titled “Revitalizing the Nation’s Talent Pool in STEM,” concluded that LSAMP had “met its stated goals of increasing the quality and quantity of students successfully completing LSAMP-supported STEM baccalaureate programs, and increasing the number of students matriculating into programs of graduate study in STEM.”
The report also found that LSAMP had “exceeded its goals by producing underrepresented minority students who attain graduate degrees in STEM at a rate not only higher than that of the national population of underrepresented minorities (URM) but also higher than that of White and Asian STEM baccalaureate degree recipients.” For instance, the report found that 79 percent of LSAMP graduates took further coursework, 66 percent pursued graduate degrees and 45 percent completed graduate degrees.
Nationally, underrepresented minorities had done those things at 62, 46 and 20 percent, respectively. The percentage rates nationally for White and Asian students were 62, 44 and 18 percent, respectively.
Since LSAMP’s inception in 1991, the program has produced more than 407,000 minority STEM bachelor’s degree recipients — some 31,000 of them in 2011 alone — out of 2.8 million LSAMP students who have enrolled in STEM studies. Of the 31,003 STEM bachelor’s degrees earned by LSAMP students in 2011, the vast majority — 12,317 — were in the life or biological sciences, NSF data show.
The next largest amount — 8,758 — were awarded in engineering. The third largest — 3,587 — were awarded in computer science. Lesser amounts were awarded in agricultural science, chemistry, geosciences, mathematics, physics/astronomy, and environmental science.
Demographically speaking, of the roughly 229,000 LSAMP students enrolled full-time in STEM fields in 2011, the vast majority — nearly 119,000 — were Hispanic. African-Americans — at a little over 92,000 — constituted the next largest group, followed by about 9,100 Native Americans; approximately 2,400 Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders; and about 6,300 who indicated more than one race, data provided by NSF show.
The Rest of the Story
But those figures only tell the quantitative story of LSAMP. The qualitative story is reflected in the new NSF book that features the 5,000-plus LSAMP scholars. It’s difficult to get a firm grasp on just how many LSAMP scholars actually go on to work in a STEM field like Rogers. The 5,000-plus STEM scholars represent those that program officials say are promising in this regard.
Dr. A. James Hicks, the program officer for LSAMP at NSF, said his sense — based on the findings of the Urban Institute study — is that LSAMP scholars tend to rise to the top.
“For certain, the [LSAMP] program is producing a quality cadre of competitive graduates in STEM fields,” Hicks said, reiterating the report’s findings that LSAMP students gain graduate degrees at higher rates than other groups.
“So we’re producing a quality product,” Hicks said. “And the nation is saying that it wants to have a greater number and quality of students — domestic students — who are competing for jobs, careers in STEM fields. [This] is a program that’s doing that.”
The Urban Institute study also said LSAMP should be replicated and expanded but also cited the need for better data to determine the extent to which LSAMP graduates were entering STEM careers. Rogers counts himself as fortunate to be a STEM professional. “Where I come from, I’m not supposed to be doing these kinds of things,” Rogers said in a recent USF video titled “Achieving National Recognition for Fostering Diversity in STEM.”
Asked to elaborate, Rogers related that he was the youngest of four children raised in the Queens borough of New York City by a single mother. His father was incarcerated. Street life engulfed a young Rogers, who speaks of doing “dirt” in the city. But the family eventually moved away from the “hood” in Queens to Georgia, where the pace of life was slower and the temptations fewer. Rogers said when he visited North Carolina A&T during a college tour, the university “felt like home.”
It so happens that North Carolina A&T is one of dozens of universities that is also home to an LSAMP program.
Rogers credits Dr. Marcia Williams, director of sponsored programs and LSAMP project director at North Carolina A&T, with exposing him to life-changing experiences.
Among other things, he said, the LSAMP program helped create a sense of community and instilled a belief that “you can be successful wherever you go.”
Williams, an expert on STEM education and student retention, cited the sense of belonging espoused in the Tinto model — a student retention model developed by education professor Vincent Tinto and that LSAMP has adopted and modified to suit STEM students — as being critical to keeping students such as Grimes Rogers on the path to a degree.
Through the Bridge to the Doctorate program at North Carolina A&T, Williams said, Rogers and others got the opportunity to engage with graduate students in master’s and doctoral degree programs through monthly meetings and other activities.
“The (Bridge to the Doctorate) cohort model also fostered a sense of community among participants that contributed to their retention,” Williams said.
Rogers recalls, “She would bring in different lecturers, speakers from across the country. I had never seen anything like that before.” USF picked up where North Carolina A&T left off. At USF, Rogers got support through the Bridge to the Doctorate that included tuition funding, insurance, travel to conferences and symposia, a stipend and participation in workshops designed to promote success in graduate education.
Grimes Rogers said he still needed to work on becoming a better writer and researcher, which he says USF helped him do.
“I came down green,” Rogers said. “The professional development; that made all of the difference.”
Whether LSAMP and its Bridge to the Doctorate program will continue to make a difference for young scholars such as Rogers remains to be seen, particularly given the shifting nature of federal funding due to ongoing fiscal crises.
Hicks, the national program director, recently asked program administrators
at the university level to create “sustainability plans” so that the LSAMP model of support can continue even if federal funding does not.
“They understand that the federal government didn’t intend to support such programs forever,” Hicks said.
Williams said her campus’s LSAMP sustainability plan involves working to infuse lessons learned from LSAMP into other aspects of the university.
But the federal LSAMP funding still stimulates innovation as best practices evolve, she noted.
“Though best practices are institutionalized, new initiatives are also implemented on (LSAMP) campuses each funding cycle,” Williams said, referring to robotics camps and workshops, Living-Learning Communities, and community college collaborations.