Houston Colleges Boost Minority Participation in STEM Fields

When John Bear became Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Houston (UH) in 1992, one of his goals was to diversify the school. But while searching for minority faculty, Bear realized how daunting his task was. "There was an extremely small pool of people out there to choose from," he recalled.

The Houston-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation ( H-LSAMP) program is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded collaborative effort among six Houston-area universities, two local community colleges, and the Houston Independent School District. Headed by Bear and colleagues, H-LSAMP--which is open to everyone regardless of race--aims to increase the number of minority applicants for research and education careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by recruiting qualified minority students to STEM disciplines, enhancing retention rates, and ensuring that each student graduates with a definite career goal. "One way of solving this problem is to try and grow our own," he says.

According to last year's evaluation report, H-LSAMP universities came close to doubling the number of STEM bachelor's degrees awarded to underrepresented minorities at participating institutions, from 458 degrees in 1998--the year before the program began --to 806 degrees five years later. UH itself has doubled the number of STEM degrees it awards to minorities, to 395. Texas State University-San Marcos also doubled their minority STEM degrees, to 101. Think that's impressive? The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) tripled the number of STEM degrees it awarded to minorities, to a total of 132.

The minority surge in STEM at H-LSAMP institutions is "something really unusual," says David Drew, Platt Professor of Education and Management at California's Claremont Graduate University and an external evaluator for H-LSAMP. The strength of the program, he suggests, was already evident by its third year; by then the growth rate of minority STEM degrees at H-LSAMP universities was more than six times the national rate.

Students participate in the fourth annual H-LSAMP Conference at

the University of Houston (October 2004).

Photos courtesy of Pete Medrano, University of Houston.

A Successful Formula

One factor in the program's success is its people. "They have a large group of absolutely committed people working directly with students," says Martin Bonsangue, professor of mathematics at California State University-Fullerton and an H-LSAMP evaluator.

Exploiting such strong support, H-LSAMP institutions have pursued a policy of aggressive minority recruitment in the Houston area. Some H-LSAMP consortium schools reach out to undergraduates nationwide and advertise the program in high schools and middle schools.

H-LSAMP's minority retention strategies are at least as important as their recruitment strategies. H-LSAMP institutions provide mentoring and resources that, taken as a whole, result in a supportive peer culture. Students accepted into the program must participate in various skill-enhancing activities designed to build interest in STEM and self-esteem. Each H-LSAMP institution has its own approach to student training, but most require H-LSAMP students to obtain research and teaching experience, attend and teach supplemental STEM courses, recruit for the H-LSAMP program, attend professional development workshops, help younger peers adjust to a four-year university or graduate school, and participate in networking events such as H-LSAMP orientation days and research conferences.

Students have access to national labs, industrial firms, and other institutions via the connections of their H-LSAMP mentors. They also receive a stipend and utilize H-LSAMP-exclusive rooms in which to study, whether individually or in supportive groups. Resources like these and the encouraging atmosphere they engender help all students--including community-college transfer students--to stick it out through graduation and continue on to graduate study.

"One of the biggest problems is that when kids get into the program, they are somewhat lost. They don't have a history of a lot of successes academically, in some instances," Bear explains. "If you establish that self-confidence--that ability to be successful--that feeds on itself. Before long, they become extremely good students." It is these qualities, Drew says, along with exceptional recruiting techniques, that make H-LSAMP special. "It's not that other AMPs [Alliance for Minority Participation programs] don't have two or three of these and do them well, but H-LSAMP has done such a marvelous job of incorporating all of them," he says.

A More Diverse Future

H-LSAMP students attest to the effectiveness of the program. H-LSAMP helped Christopher Miller find his direction while a student at UH. Though typically a good student, by his sophomore year Miller was so overwhelmed by the college scene that he contemplated quitting school. "College wasn't something that everybody did," he says. "In my neighborhood, many guys my age have two to three kids by different women or are in jail. That's the typical path. That's where I'm supposed to be." Thanks to H-LSAMP, Miller completed his B.S. in mathematics, making him the first in his family to finish college. After he completes his master's degree program in applied math, he plans to enter a Ph.D. program.

Miller, who serves as program coordinator at UH, adds that H-LSAMP has been "worthwhile" for many minorities; it armed them with valuable skills in STEM and allowed many students to obtain STEM degrees. According to Richard Alo, Executive Director of the Center for Computational Science and Information Technology and Executive Director of Grants and Contracts at UHD, H-LSAMP is poised to accomplish still more in the future. As H-LSAMP has progressed, UHD and some of the other H-LSAMP institutions have collaborated on grants to fund programs geared to enhance STEM education at other levels, from elementary school to graduate school. These programs, he says, could further enhance H-LSAMP's success.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at eofrancisco@nasw.org.

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