Toward a More Diverse Research Community: Models of Success

A forward-looking group of colleges and universities are demonstrating effective ways to educate underrepresented minorities for careers in science and engineering.

Away from the spotlight on the recent presidential election and transition, the United States quietly reached a crossroads crucial to the nation’s future, yet hardly discussed by the national candidates. At this crossroads the nation must decide whether or not it will take the path leading to a science and technology talent pool well-developed in quality and quantity that draws from people throughout our population. It is only by tapping all of that talent pool that the country will succeed in realizing the economic, security, and health goals the American people prize.

If the nation’s policymakers and education leaders take the deliberate steps needed to expand the participation and success of underrepresented minorities in STEM based on what we know works, success is possible.

The United States has never been close to drawing fully on the nation’s science and technology talent. And unfortunately, that goal is now becoming harder to reach because the fastest-growing groups in our population are also the most underrepresented in science and technology. The only way to achieve that goal is to deliberately choose the path of inclusive excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in colleges and universities to provide the graduates needed by private, public, and nonprofit employers to sustain the economy and meet national goals.

If the nation’s policymakers and education leaders take the deliberate steps needed to expand the participation and success of underrepresented minorities in STEM based on what we know works, success is possible. Their actions should be guided by evidence of what works. Luckily, published reports—from the National Academies, the White House, and others—have already described the problem of underrepresentation in STEM and offered evidence-based findings and thoughtful recommendations for better utilizing US talent.

When the National Academies released its report in 2011 on expanding the participation and success of underrepresented minorities in STEM, it observed that although the needle had hardly moved on expanding underrepresented minority success in these fields at all levels, the nation had an excellent opportunity to succeed because it was already known what works and what needed to be done. The question was whether the nation had the will to do it.

Unfortunately, the needle has budged only slightly in the meantime. We believe that the nation does not need to invent anything new or innovative to address this critical problem. This can be understood if we look in detail at the evidence of where progress has been made by field and institution. This level of analysis identifies universities that are already succeeding in educating underrepresented minorities in these fields. We should build on and adapt this work.

Dimensions of the problem

The National Academies report, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads, identified significant underrepresentation of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans in science and engineering (S&E); the situation has changed little in the six years since the report was issued. The percentage of the nation’s S&E workforce (academic and nonacademic) that is underrepresented minority increased from 9.1% to 12% between 2006 and 2013. That sounds like significant progress until one learns that the percentage of the nation’s population that is comprised of underrepresented minorities increased from 28.5% to 32.6% during that period. The participation of minorities in the S&E workforce is not keeping pace with the country’s changing demographics.

The report found that “Underrepresentation of this magnitude in the S&E workforce stems from the underproduction of minorities in S&E at every step of postsecondary education, with a progressive loss of representation as we proceed up the academic ladder.” Figure 1 shows how this was true in 2000 and was still true in 2012 (most recent year for available data), despite increases in underrepresented minority participation in postsecondary education and science and engineering degree awards at all levels. In 2012, underrepresented minorities comprised 34.6% of undergraduates, 18.9% of those earning S&E bachelor’s degrees, 13.7% of those awarded S&E master’s, and just 7.3% of doctoral awards in these fields.

The National Academies committee was not surprised to discover, given the findings above, that most underrepresented minority students left STEM majors before completing a college degree. According to analysis by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, just 18.4% of blacks, 22.1% of Latinos, and 18.8% of Native Americans who matriculated at four-year institutions seeking a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field earned one within five years. What is surprising is that most whites and Asian Americans were also not succeeding in STEM. Approximately 33% of white and 42% of Asian American STEM majors completed their bachelor’s degree in STEM within five years of matriculation.

Thus, this is not a problem for minorities only; it’s a national problem. Most well-prepared students of all backgrounds with an interest in STEM fields and careers abandon that goal in the first two years of college. To solve the problem, we in academia just need to look in the mirror.

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Recent developments

Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation found that there existed “a cadre of qualified underrepresented minorities who already attend college, declared an interest in majoring in the natural sciences or engineering, and either did not complete a degree or switched out of STEM before graduating.” It recommended comprehensive support for underrepresented minority undergraduates in these fields—just as we also support K-12 academic preparation—and that financial support for these students “be provided through higher education institutions along with programs that simultaneously integrate academic, social, and professional development.”

The report also recommended that we—our institutions, programs, and faculty—redesign introductory courses in STEM to support the success of students rather than weed them out, and that we build community among our students to foster learning and persistence. Course redesign can take many forms, including problem-focused learning, group- or team-based learning, tutoring, peer support, and flipped classes in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Building community among students is also central to success. It facilitates learning through group work in which peers can learn from one another, and it provides the social integration and cohesion—the sense of belonging—that promotes persistence and completion.

The report’s finding and recommendation regarding course redesign was strongly echoed a year later in 2012 when the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST) released Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, which argued “for improving STEM education during the first two years of college … a crucial stage in the STEM education pathway.” The report insisted that institutions and their faculty redesign introductory courses in the sciences and mathematics that are required for majors in those fields as well as in engineering and medicine. And many instructors are now pioneering new approaches.

We are delighted by efforts at many universities to redesign courses. The Summer Institutes on Scientific Teaching, which emerged out of another National Academies report, Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, released in 2003, has been working on this issue now for more than a decade. Bio2010 recommended that universities provide faculty with opportunities to refine classroom techniques and integrate new pedagogical approaches into their courses. The problem-focused, team-based, active learning it promotes engages students in a way that internalizes scientific knowledge, promotes understanding of scientific processes, and facilitates identification with the scientific profession.

Our faculty members at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), are illustrative of what professors are doing at the most forward-looking institutions. Anne Spence, a professor of practice in mechanical engineering, uses a flipped classroom model in her engineering mathematics course. Students watch short videos of two lectures (each 8-10 minutes long) prior to class and Spence then uses class time for problem-solving. She has reported that although some students prefer a more “passive” approach to learning, nine out of 10 eventually get on board with the problem-centered approach that requires them to be responsible for their own learning. Taryn Bayles, a professor of practice in chemical engineering, challenges junior majors in her class to teach fundamental concepts in heat and mass transfer to high school students. They learn that they must do more than just complete problems for homework; they have to explain concepts—taking learning to another level. Biology professor Jeff Leips attended the National Academies’ Summer Institutes in 2004 and subsequently redesigned his biology courses around team-based learning. Bill LaCourse, now dean of natural sciences and mathematics, also used team-based, problem-focused active learning to redesign introductory chemistry. He built a designated active learning space, the Chemistry Discovery Center, to facilitate this approach. It has decreased course-failure rates, enhanced learning in chemistry, and boosted the number of majors in the department.

Transforming Postsecondary Education in Mathematics, a national organization created to implement recommendations from the PCAST report, is leading an effort to change teaching and learning through new courses and pathways for success in undergraduate mathematics. This effort is focused particularly on improving the success of students in remedial mathematics classes, which are often a barrier to undergraduate success and completion, both in general and in STEM fields.

In addition, federal agencies have recently initiated efforts to address underrepresentation. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), through its Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) initiative, begun in 2014, seeks to encourage “undergraduate institutions to implement and study innovative approaches to engaging and retaining students from diverse backgrounds in biomedical research, potentially helping them on the pathway to become future contributors to the NIH-funded research enterprise.” The National Science Foundation (NSF), through its Inclusion Across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Science and Engineering (INCLUDES) program, begun in 2016, seeks to “enhance US leadership in science and engineering discovery and innovation by seeking and effectively developing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent from all sectors and groups in our society. By facilitating partnerships, communication and cooperation, NSF aims to build on and scale up what works in broadening participation programs to reach underserved populations nationwide.”

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BUILD and INCLUDES add to existing NIH and NSF programs designed specifically to expand underrepresented minority success in STEM broadly or biomedical sciences more specifically. NSF programs include the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation and Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. NIH programs include Bridges to the Baccalaureate, Bridges to the Doctorate, Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research, Research Supplements for Diversity, and the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement. The Department of Education’s Math and Science Partnerships program does not exclusively focus on increasing diversity, but grant recipients can include this as a goal. These and other federal agencies also have programs that target historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities.

Models worth imitating

A number of universities are blazing the trail by demonstrating which innovations produce success and deserve support from federal agencies, corporate foundations, and private philanthropies. An analysis of the colleges and universities that educate undergraduate African Americans who go on to earn PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering reveals a range of institutions that can support underrepresented minority success in STEM. As shown in Table 1, 13 of the top 20 baccalaureate-origin institutions are HBCUs, and seven are predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

Although these institutions deserve credit for showing that progress is possible, vast room for improvement remains. For example, the PWIs most active in research are graduating each year only four to six African Americans who eventually earn a PhD in the natural sciences or engineering. With a concerted effort along the lines described below, these universities could double or triple the numbers.

The critical role of HBCUs deserves special attention. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 100 HBCUs in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. They represent just 3% of postsecondary institutions, but they enroll 8% of black undergraduates. They award 15% of bachelor’s degrees earned by blacks, 19% of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees to blacks, and 35% of bachelor’s degrees to blacks who go on to earn PhDs in STEM.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming number of black undergraduates (92%) are enrolled in institutions that are not HBCUs, and we must not ignore those other institutions that can make a significant difference in educating blacks in the natural sciences and engineering if they focus attention on the task. Indeed, Table 2 displays the percentage of an institution’s black bachelor’s degree recipients who go on to earn PhDs in these fields. Here, PWIs top the list, though the numbers are still relatively small. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is first with 8.1% of its black undergraduates eventually earning a PhD in natural sciences and engineering. The yield is impressive, though with just 50 black alumni over 10 years earning PhDs in these fields, this amounts to just five per year. UMBC is second with 4.4% of African Americans going on to earn PhDs in natural sciences and engineering, based on about nine graduates per year, relatively good but a number that can be increased.

In addition, PWIs award 88% of doctorates to blacks: 26% of blacks earn a bachelor’s degree at an HBCU and then earn a doctorate at a PWI, and 62% of blacks earn both the bachelor’s degree and PhD at a PWI. There is some variation by field in the percentage of PhDs awarded to blacks by PWIs: these institutions award 96% of PhDs in mathematics and computer science, 91% in engineering, 87% in physical sciences, 86% in biological and biomedical sciences, and 73% in agriculture.

Given that most African American students are enrolled in PWIs, replicating the success of the PWIs that have done well in educating African Americans in STEM would be a logical place to focus investment. UMBC is one of those institutions.

Proof of concept: UMBC

Thirty years ago, African American students were failing in science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. As we looked for ways to improve student success, we were fortunate that Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff had a special concern about the plight of black males and took an interest in our work.

With support from the Meyerhoff Foundation, UMBC launched the Meyerhoff Scholars Program in 1989. Based on a holistic approach to educating black men, the program provides academic, social, and financial support to ensure that these students succeed in college and continue to doctoral programs. The program began with 19 black male college freshmen in its first year. The program has flourished and is now open to male and female students of all backgrounds. During the 2015-16 academic year, the program’s 270 students were 57% African American, 15% Caucasian, 15% Asian, 12% Hispanic, and 1% Native American.

The importance of including rigorous evaluation in any program or initiative cannot be overstated.

The key elements of the Meyerhoff program focus on values, financial support, academic success, social integration, and professional development. The core values of the program are high expectations for all students and aspiration for a research career by all students. Financial support provides students the opportunity to focus exclusively on their academic work. Research has shown that those students who work part-time (especially off campus) do not perform as well. A summer bridge program, study groups, peer mentoring, and faculty ownership of the program and student success critically support learning, persistence, completion, and acceptance into doctorate programs. Meyerhoff scholars reside in living-learning communities for their first two years, they engage in community service, and their family members are invited to campus events. The strategy is to deliberately form a sense of belonging and community that nurtures the students. Research has shown that individuals who do not persist are less likely to have a sense of belonging, and so the program actively promotes bonding among students in the Meyerhoff cohort, as well as with the larger “Meyerhoff family” and the UMBC community. The program also requires students to work in a research laboratory because experiential learning reinforces both knowledge of the science and identification as a scientist. Faculty advising supports the students as they plan their courses and their careers.

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The importance of including rigorous evaluation in any program or initiative cannot be overstated. Far from being an add-on or afterthought, evaluation is necessary for both continual improvement and proof of concept. Data on program success are useful to program leadership in fundraising and to policymakers in considering best practice to be emulated.

The strategy is to deliberately form a sense of belonging and community that nurtures the students.

Our goal has been for Meyerhoff students to engage in research careers in the sciences, engineering, and medicine. There are now more than one thousand program alumni, 70% of whom are African American. Of this cohort, 350 are currently enrolled in graduate or professional schools, including 42 in MD and 41 in MD-PhD programs. Our graduates have earned 236 PhDs (including 45 MD-PhDs), 154 MDs, and 14 other professional degrees in health care. In addition, 271 have earned master’s degrees, mainly in engineering and computer science. Through our evaluation program, we also know that Meyerhoff alumni are five times more likely to graduate from or be a student in a STEM PhD or MD-PhD program than students who were accepted to the Meyerhoff program but chose to attend a different institution.

Some critics have argued that although the Meyerhoff program is successful at UMBC, its success could not be replicated elsewhere. They maintain that UMBC is a unique place with a president who is African American and a program champion in a way that cannot be copied. They also claim the program is expensive.

These criticisms are now being put to the test. Based on the notion that we should learn from institutions that have been successful, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has invested about $8 million over five years, beginning in 2014, to adapt UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program through the Millennium Scholars Program at Pennsylvania State University and the Chancellor’s Scholars Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

We have learned that a campus that helps underrepresented minority students is also one that helps students in general.

These institutions’ leaders, neither of whom is a person of color, are deeply supportive of their respective programs and have invested their own institutional resources to support their development. As with UMBC, success will depend as well on the buy-in and deep involvement of faculty and staff beyond institutional leadership. As with the original Meyerhoff program at UMBC, this adaptation effort includes a rigorous evaluation program that serves to inform program development and validate proof of concept. So far, results look positive with respect to student academic success (as measured by grade point averages) and student retention in STEM majors.

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Closer to home, we have learned that a campus that helps underrepresented minority students is also one that helps students in general. Now that we have shown success with high-achieving African American students, we are using the lessons learned to support the broader undergraduate population. Through a major grant from the National Institutes of Health BUILD initiative, we are now working to extend the successes of Meyerhoff to the broader undergraduate population in the life sciences at UMBC.

If we put our effort into it, we can expand the Meyerhoff program to new fields, and other institutions could also be successful with similar deliberate and focused efforts. We have already accomplished this in the physical sciences. At the time Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation was published in 2011, UMBC was not in the top 10 among institutions in the number of African American undergraduates who completed PhDs in the physical sciences. Since then, through a close partnership with the National Security Agency, we have been able to support more students in the physical sciences, especially mathematics. Our increased success with African American students in these fields has recently moved our institution into the top 10. Other fields we are now targeting are the social sciences and medicine. There is room for improvement in these additional fields, and we plan to work on this in the future. For example, we are now outlining a plan for a Meyerhoff-like program to support the success of African Americans in economics.

The field of medicine is instructive. According to data from the American Association of Medical Colleges (see Table 3), UMBC ranks first in the nation in producing African American undergraduates who go on to earn the MD-PhD. However, when it comes to producing African Americans who go on to earn an MD degree, UMBC currently ranks 25th on the list of undergraduate schools for African Americans who go on to earn MD or MD-PhD degrees. In our efforts to produce more PhDs, it seems that we have actually discouraged students from going to medical school. Still, about 10 African American graduates of UMBC earn the MD or MD-PhD each year. We would need to produce just five more per year to be in the top 10. The fact is that with concerted effort and a deliberate approach we could double or triple these numbers—and that is the key point.

As a nation, we have shown that we can be successful if we focus on the work of increasing the participation and success of underrepresented groups in STEM and ensure that it is a priority at our institutions. For example, we have been successful in including greater numbers of women in the life sciences. But we have not been successful at maintaining women in significant numbers in computer science, where women have declined nationwide as a percentage of undergraduates. We had focus in the first instance; we took our eyes off the target in the second. And the results show it.

As a society, we face a particular challenge in the shortage of underrepresented minorities in STEM, particularly those who have earned PhDs and continue on to faculty careers in research. To address this, we must identify and learn from institutions that have been successful in educating African American undergraduates in the natural sciences and engineering through a focused effort.

We must also think critically about how to support these students when they complete their doctorates. Many arrive at that point in their careers without substantial guidance about next steps or a network to enable those steps. We need to develop a cadre of current faculty and researchers broadly—of all racial and ethnic backgrounds—who will serve as mentors and guides for these students who are assets critical to our nation’s future.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and he chaired the President’s Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans under the Obama administration. Peter H. Henderson is senior advisor to the president at UMBC. They served as study committee chair and study director, respectively, for the National Academies report Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.

Recommended reading

Bayer Corporation, STEM Education, Science Literacy, and the Innovation Workforce in America: 2012 Analysis and Insights from the Bayer Facts of Science Education Surveys (Pittsburgh, PA: Bayer Corporation, 2012).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011).

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President, February 2012).

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Cite this Article

III, Freeman A. Hrabowski, and Peter H. Henderson. “Toward a More Diverse Research Community: Models of Success.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 3 (Spring 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Spring 2017