Leading science fair expands efforts to attract minority students

2013 Intel finalist Alexa Dantzler has become an advocate for more diversity in student science competitions.

Intel STS

Leading science fair expands efforts to attract minority students

Alexa Dantzler fell in love with science as a freshman at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. And by the time she graduated in 2013, she had been chosen as one of 40 finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition (STS). 

But Dantzler, whose ethnic background is Slovak, Korean, and African-American, was troubled by how few of the other competitors were from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. So, soon after she arrived at Emory University in Atlanta, Dantzler started a program to attract more students “who look like me” into university research and science competitions. The Society for Science & the Public (SSP), the Washington, D.C.–based organization that runs the STS competition, was thinking along the same lines. And last month it chose Dantzler as one of a handful of “advocates” to draw more underrepresented minorities into research-based competitions.  

The advocates program, which began last year, is part of a three-pronged effort by SSP to expand its outreach and equity activities. On 25 May SSP announced that the Tarrytown, New York–based biotech company Regeneron would replace Intel as the titled sponsor of the annual talent search, which has been running since 1942. Although the majority of the company’s pledge of $100 million over 10 years will be used to improve the talent search, whose alumni include 12 Nobel laureates and two Fields Medal winners, some $30 million will be spent on public outreach. Most of that money will be used to bring SSP’s flagship publication, Science News, into 4000 high schools across the United States. But Regeneron and two philanthropies—the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Alcoa Foundation—have also agreed to finance $3000 stipends to support the diversity efforts of advocates like Dantzler. This year, SSP chose 30 advocates from 240 applications, and it hopes to scale the program to 100 in the next few years.

At Emory, Dantzler began working with two students from Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School in Atlanta under a program she created called Students Obtaining Atlanta Research. Their interest in her Intel STS project—she studied how dry cleaning chemicals that remain in clothing could be bad for a person’s health, with the support of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., biochemist Paul Roepe—inspired her to expand the program’s focus to include competitions. Dantzler talked about how her passion for research pushed her far beyond the assignment in her honors biology course. “For students like myself and those who I mentor, it can be discouraging to see that there aren’t people who look like you or have the same cultural experiences as you,” she said.

SSP doesn’t collect demographic information on the students who enter the STS competition, says Maya Ajmera, president and CEO. But Caitlin Sullivan, program manager of STS, says that Asian-American and Caucasian students make up a majority of the participants each year and that advocates are expected to target African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans as well as students whose families have limited incomes.

She and other educators say that the lack of a support network is probably the biggest obstacle to greater participation by those underrepresented groups. The problem is compounded by insufficient opportunities to do hands-on science, teachers with too little free time to help students pursue their scientific interests, and an application process that can be hard to navigate, advocates say. “What we do know is that there are quite a few underserved students doing [research programs] but they don’t compete,” Ajmera said. 

That’s where advocates can be so important. “There’s always the recruiting question,” says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) based in Arlington, Virginia. Evans says NSTA works with other organizations to make potential mentors aware of opportunities for their students to participate in science competitions.

Advocate Scott Bolen, research coordinator at the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology in Conyers, Georgia, says that promoting student research opportunities sometimes makes him feel like an outlier. “Science fairs and science competitions—that’s not really a school building priority. … So anything that gets these advocates together to talk about what they’re doing to keep their kids successful, I think that really is valuable.”

Last year, Bolen mentored some 15 students weekly in what he called Bolen’s Breakfast Club. Every student participated in the school’s science fair, and one was accepted into the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix. In his second year as an advocate, Bolen hopes to extend access to an online discussion board for students across the county. “[The advocates] talk about deadlines and dates and what these competitions are looking for,” Bolen said. “If teachers don’t know who to ask, then that becomes an obstacle to their students.”

In Texas, second-year advocate Russ Stukel plans to expand the program he created for middle school students. He said SSP contacted him last year based on the success of the decade-old high school research program at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS). Stukel, assistant dean for student life at TAMS at the University of North Texas in Denton, says his goal is to convince students to reach for the stars even when they are young.

“You don’t have to have a million dollars or a giant brain to conduct an experiment,” Stukel said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, [research] is for somebody else.’ And our response is, ‘No. You do experiments daily, but you don’t realize it.’” This year’s program will start in the summer, he says, so that the middle-schoolers “can hit the ground running.”

Dantzler expects to graduate next spring with a double major in biology and African studies and aspires to be a physician. In the meantime, she aims to grow her cohort this year to five women. “I’ve always believed that science should be a very inclusive field,” she said. “We all have an obligation to help all students become involved [in research].”