Panel Discussion: Enlightened Leadership, Favorable Culture Key Campus Factors for Minority Undergraduate STEM Success

WASHINGTON, D.C. – To diversify the pool of America’s STEM field graduates, faculty members and administrators should reexamine their teaching practices and assume a posture where they expect underrepresented minority students to graduate rather than fail.

That was one of the major institutional changes recommended Wednesday at a panel discussion titled “Bridging the Gap: STEM Diversity and U.S. Higher Education, Recruiting, Retaining and Reinvigorating College STEM Programs.”

Panelists heavily criticized institutions that adopt practices meant to “weed out” students from the STEM fields.

Dr. S. James Gates, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Working Group on Undergraduate STEM Education, said colleges and universities should take an approach more in line with the military’s approach of “we will not leave our people behind.”

“If we can get that inculcated in our institutions more broadly, I think it will make an enormous difference,” Gates said.

Dr. Mary Frank Fox, co-director of the Center for the Study of Women, Science & Technology at Georgia Institute of Technology, also took aim at the “weed-them-out” approach.

“That is not a hospitable climate for students,” Fox said. “Let’s teach students to move along rather than have them sink or swim.”

Acknowledging that some professors find merit in trying to weed students out, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and creator of the award-winning Meyerhoff Scholars Program, stressed the benefits of collaborative work over individualism.

When asked by a Duke University professor what he thought about the “culture of the curve,” Hrabowski suggested that Duke study the group work approach espoused at UMBC.

He said what UMBC has found is that if faculty grade by the curve, it dissuades more knowledgeable students from helping less knowledgeable students because they believe it will hurt their chances of getting a higher grade.

“This is what keeps people from working together and makes things much more cutthroat,” Hrabowski said. In lieu of the curve, Hrabowski recommended grading by a common set of standards.

Wednesday’s discussion was moderated by Dr. Mae C. Jemison, a scientist, physician, chemical engineer, college professor who is best known as the first African-American woman in space.

Jemison challenged the notion that STEM field diversity is strictly a matter of numbers or that its merit should be based on the need to foster more American competitiveness and prosperity.

“I think very few children are going to choose to pursue and complete STEM studies because it’s going to make our country more competitive in the long run,” Jemison said. “They choose STEM fields because it excites them, it’s challenging, it’s about creativity, imagination, they love the fields no matter what.”

Jemison said diversity is important to broaden the perspective of how science is used to benefit humanity, but something is happening at the postsecondary level where students who gravitate toward STEM fields do not graduate with a STEM degree.

Gates, the physics professor, said the top reasons why students abandon STEM majors is because of lack of academic engagement by professors, particularly in research, and weakness in mathematics instruction at the K-12 level.

Along those lines, the event’s sponsor, the Bayer Corporation, released a new report titled “Planting the Seeds for a Diverse U.S. STEM Pipeline: A Compendium of Best Practice K-12 STEM Education Programs.”

Dr. David Seybert, Dean of the Bayer School for Natural and Environmental Sciences at Duquesne University, said faculty at his school used to blame the lack of academic preparedness on high schools and middle schools.

But in recent years, he said, there’s been a “culture change” where faculty have become much more actively engaged with middle and high schools.

“There’s an increasing recognition that we have to be part of the pipeline solutions,” Seybert said.

Dr. A. James Hicks, Program Director at the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program at the National Science Foundation, touted the “alliance concept” espoused by the program he oversees.

Hicks said the alliances within LSAMP involve citywide or statewide networks that include community colleges, HBCUs, research institutions and various governmental agencies.

“We believe it takes all of these focuses to come together to make for an outstanding student,” Hicks said.

Dr. Ran, Libeskind-Hadas, chair of the Department of Computer Science at Harvey Mudd College, shared a practice his college adopted where less knowledgeable students are grouped to take the introductory course in computer science by themselves to mitigate against feelings of embarrassment being among more knowledgeable students.

By instituting this practice, he said, less prepared students have persisted in taking higher level courses at similar rates as better prepared students.

Panelists agreed that while institutional change can be hard to bring about, faculty buy-in is a key ingredient.

“A lot of it has to do with faculty commitment,” said Dr. Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, senior research at Mathematica Policy Research, and an evaluator of the LSAMP program.

All of the panelists rejected a suggestion by Jemison that faculty members’ research money be contingent upon how well they do of graduating more minority students in STEM.

Hrabowski, of UMBC, said in academe “you don’t make anyone do anything,” but that incentives, such as recognition and visibility, could be put in place to reward faculty who make headway in graduating more minority students in STEM fields.