Students design, construct, and test radio telescopes at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia under a National Science Foundation grant.

Nima ShahabShahmir/Green Bank Observatory

What NSF’s new diversity grants say about attempts to help minority students

Ted Hodapp has spent the past 5 years helping boost the number of minority students pursuing U.S. graduate degrees in physics. But Hodapp, who works on education and diversity issues at the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland, knows the society’s Bridge Program will at best make only a small dent in the nationwide dearth of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans working in all science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. He wanted an opportunity to show that Bridge’s approach—which starts by encouraging graduate schools to de-emphasize scores on the standardized GRE entrance exam in the student selection process—could work in other STEM disciplines and, in doing so, promote the value of diversity in U.S. higher education.

Last week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, gave Hodapp $10 million to make that happen. The grant was one of six 5-year awards that the agency announced on 6 September under its new Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) initiative, which NSF Director France Córdova rolled out in 2016 as one of her priorities. The $57 million outlay marks NSF’s first major investment in INCLUDES. 

The five Alliances, as NSF calls them, will allow STEM educators to scale up existing diversity efforts by partnering with like-minded businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations, and local and state governments. The goal is to tear down disciplinary, geographic, and cultural barriers that hinder efforts to promote broader participation in STEM. (NSF also made a $10 million award to SRI International in Menlo Park, California, to coordinate activities and carry out research across all the alliances.)

Removing a barrier

For Hodapp, the new grant means extending Bridge—which includes remedial training, mentoring, and other means of support—to graduate training programs in chemistry, astronomy, the geosciences, and material sciences. He’ll be working with the professional societies in those fields, as well as other academics, in hopes of revising graduate admissions practices at departments throughout the country.

“A major research university might get 600 applications for 30 slots, and maybe 350 of the students would do just fine,” he says. “So how do you choose? As a first cut, many use the GRE, which is not a good indicator of success and also puts women and racial minorities at a disadvantage.”

In 2013, Hodapp found six universities willing to abandon that simplistic metric and welcome a dozen deserving students with low GRE scores, most of them minorities, who had either been rejected by other programs or who considered it pointless to even apply. Five years later, 38 departments are on board, 168 students are pursuing advanced degrees, the retention rate is 87%, and the program expects its first cohort of Ph.D.s to graduate next spring.

Surging enrollment, Hodapp says, puts the Bridge program within reach of its goal of halting the steep attrition rates in physics between undergraduate and graduate training and, simultaneously, doubling the annual number of black, Hispanic, and Native American students earning a physics Ph.D. Hodapp hopes the new Alliance grant, dubbed the Inclusive Graduate Education Network, will produce similar numbers across the physical sciences.

The NSF three-step

INCLUDES is the latest addition to NSF’s $925 million stable of diversity programs, which range from elementary school through postdoctoral training and beyond. They are not meant to be mutually exclusive; Hodapp, for example, received a $3 million NSF grant in 2012 to launch Bridge. At the same time, INCLUDES reflects Córdova’s conviction that the only way to make a dent in this seemingly intractable problem is to enlist many sectors of society for the long haul.

“The design and focus of INCLUDES is on collaborative partnerships, communications, sustainability, and scale,” says Sylvia James, who leads the Human Resource Development division within NSF’s education directorate. “We’re looking for unique approaches that can integrate NSF’s investment in broadening participation.”

“It’s one of NSF’s 10 big ideas,” James adds. “So there’s a 10-year plan for it in our budget.”

The distinctiveness of the INCLUDES Alliance program is reflected in how NSF structured the awards. Instead of just asking the community for its best ideas, NSF officials pursued a three-step process.

It began with a 2016 call for proposals for pilot grants that would give scientists the chance to test their ideas. NSF received several hundred proposals and chose 70 of these 2-year, $300,000 grants in two rounds of funding.

The foundation’s second step was to bankroll a dozen conferences so that the lead scientists on the pilot grants could find soulmates. The idea was to broaden the scope and size of the pilots. It hoped those intellectual marriages would spawn more comprehensive and sophisticated proposals for one of the large Alliance grants. To ensure continuity, each Alliance application had to include a principal investigator from at least one of the pilots.

In the end, NSF received 27 Alliance applications, and funded five. That’s twice the number NSF suggested it would fund in the solicitation, James notes, a testament to the high quality of the proposals and the willingness of other NSF directorates and programs to chip in. Applications for a second round of Alliance grants are due in April 2019.

An unplanned tilt

Preparing a diverse STEM workforce requires engaging students at all levels. But the first round of Alliance winners is skewed toward higher education, specifically, running from 2-year community colleges through graduate training.

In addition to Hodapp’s project, NSF gave $10 million to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, based in Washington, D.C., and the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They are pursuing a three-pronged attempt to improve the skills of STEM faculty members at dozens of universities in mentoring minority students, grow the ranks of minority STEM faculty, and promote diversity throughout academia. Another $10 million Alliance award, based at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, will help community college students in California and three other states overcome deficits in math as the first step into a STEM major. A fourth $10 million Alliance grant, based at the University of Texas in El Paso, will support expansion of a 12-year-old computing alliance among academic institutions that serve a large number of Hispanic students.

The absence of any Alliances focused on precollege or informal science education “was not intentional,” James says. “These projects rose to the top during our merit review process. We’re definitely interested in K-12 and we hope to provide support to that sector in subsequent awards that would complement our first cohort.”

Matchmaking woes

Because K-12 education in the United States is largely a local and state responsibility, scientists with pilot grants focused on that population faced a higher bar in trying to build coalitions and attract other partners. April Marchetti, a chemistry professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, ran into that challenge in when she tried to recruit partners for an Alliance proposal.

The pilot project offers a summer STEM program for Hispanic girls starting high school, with the goal of bringing them back in subsequent years to provide a glide path for their entry into college and a STEM career. Marchetti had already forged ties with STEM-based companies and other employers of STEM workers, and she hoped an Alliance grant would strengthen those ties and provide additional student support. But like-minded programs were scarce.

“We couldn’t find a suitable partner in time for the [Alliance] deadline,” she says “There are so many populations to be served, and so many types of interventions. We want to continue to be part of INCLUDES, but we don’t want to have to change our focus.”

Marchetti was able to parlay a chance meeting at one of the NSF conferences into a consultant’s role with a fifth new Alliance. Led by Erica Harvey, a chemistry professor at Fairmont State College in West Virginia, the First2 STEM Success Network will work with students from rural West Virginia, many of them the first in their families to attend college. The $7 million project hopes to reduce the steep outflow from STEM fields in the first 2 years of college with an array of activities designed to cement a student’s interest in science and engineering by showing its relevance to their lives.

Harvey was co–principal investigator on a pilot project led by Sue Ann Heatherly, senior education officer at the Green Bank Observatory in rural West Virginia. The radio telescope, built by NSF, had long served as a magnet for STEM educators throughout the state seeking research opportunities for their students. The pilot provided rising freshmen with a 2-week summer program at one of the two institutions, and the Alliance hopes to build out that successful trial.

The West Virginia Alliance has an unusually diverse group of partners assembled in large part to satisfy an NSF requirement that all projects include an institutional “backbone” to coordinate activities and to work with NSF and the other Alliance programs. That capacity and expertise already exists at most major research universities and large nonprofit organizations. But it was a significant obstacle for the grassroots operation run by Heatherly and Harvey.

“I’m a chemistry professor, and I have my hands full running the internships along with everything else I do,” Harvey says. “It had never occurred to us that it’s worth paying for the infrastructure needed to provide that type of continuity and accountability.”

So Heatherly and Harvey reached out to a state entity, the Higher Education Policy Commission. The commission was already managing an NSF-funded program, the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, to help states with relatively small amounts of federal research funding, and was eager to come on board. The scientists also enlisted SRI International as a “mentor backbone” to help the commission climb the learning curve.

Bending the bars

However, some scientists with pilot grants found the backbone component to be an insurmountable hurdle.

Jannette Carey, a chemistry professor at Princeton University, and a few colleagues have been running a science education program in the New Jersey prison system for a dozen years with more than 100 student volunteers. She used the pilot, dubbed STEPS (Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons) to STEM, to add additional offerings, including a first-ever laboratory course, as stepping stones toward a 4-year degree for prisoners after they are released. “But as a volunteer organization,” she says, “we couldn’t meet the requirement for the infrastructure needed to collaborate and communicate with other organizations and institutions.”

Her own attempts at matchmaking also proved a disappointment. “We went to the conferences in hopes of finding partners who had a realistic chance of submitting a credible proposal,” Carey says. “But none of the other pilots shared our goals of bringing university-level courses into a prison.” A last-minute partnership with another pilot grantee that focuses on improving the math skills of underrepresented minorities failed to make the initial cut, she says.

Carey has a good sense of what passes muster at NSF, having run an NSF-funded program to provide research experiences for undergraduates (REU) in biophysics for several years. And she hasn’t abandoned the idea of gaining additional NSF support for something that occupies a unique niche in the agency’s portfolio of efforts to reach underrepresented populations.

That hope is embodied in her latest proposal. She’s asking that her next REU grant allow her to work with students in all fields that NSF supports, not just in the physics, mathematics, engineering, and computer science programs that relate to biophysics. It’s an essential step in meeting the needs of this underserved population, she argues.

“A lot of formerly incarcerated students gravitate toward psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and other disciplines in the social sciences,” she says. “So including them could make an important contribution to growing the STEM workforce.”