Broaden Participation in STEM

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

04/23/2015  |  By Ashanti Johnson and Lois Ricciardi

MS PHD’S®participants visit the Einstein statute in Washington, D.C. (June 2014)

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, Jeramie Strickland, a young African American male and wildlife biologist,stood before a group of over 100 diverse high school students at the annual American Geophysical Union fall meeting to share his story of rising from a difficult childhood of poverty and challenge in Chicago to a successful career with the U.S. 

Fish and Wildlife Service. “Don’t be afraid to be different,” “It’s cool to be smart,” and “Surround yourself with positive people; people who have your best interests at heart,” were among a few of the words of advice that he shared with these students seeking a future in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Strickland went on to explain how a synergy of elements helped him to pursue his love of nature and the environment and achieve his dream of obtaining an advanced degree and career in STEM. Strickland’s story demonstrates what many experts in broadening participation in STEM espouse — that successful programs for broadening the participation of under-represented minority (URM) populations in STEM model Aristotle’s philosophy that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” — and involve a synergy of sustained interactions with students, mentoring by professionals, and exposure to educational and research opportunities.

Why is Broadening Participation in STEM Important?

According to the National Academies of Science Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy and Policy and Global Affairs, a strategy to increase the participation of under-represented minorities in science and engineering should play a central role in our approach to sustaining America’s research and innovation capacity for at least three reasons:

  1. Our sources for the future science and engineering workforce are uncertain: For many years, the nation relied on a science and engineering workforce that was predominantly male and overwhelmingly white and Asian. In the more recent past, as the proportion of the science and engineering workforce that is white and male has fluctuated, we have seen gains for women in some fields and an increasing reliance on international students in others...we are coming to understand that relying on non-U.S. citizens for our science and engineering workforce is an increasingly uncertain proposition.
  2. The demographics of our domestic population are shifting dramatically: If the uncertainty about the future participation of international students suggests that we need to ensure that we draw on all demographic sources, the dramatic changes in the demographics of the domestic population, especially the school-age population, suggest that the problem is all the more urgent: Those groups that are most underrepresented in science and engineeringarealso the fastest growing in the general population.
  3. Diversity is an asset: Increasing the participation and success of underrepresented minorities in science and engineering contributes to the health of the nation by expanding the science and engineering talent pool, enhancing innovation, and improving the nation’s global economic leadership.

Given the recognition of the growth in diversity of our nation’s population, it only makes sense that innovative and substantive efforts are not only desirable but also necessary for advancing the recruitment and retention of URM students in STEM. Questions arise as to how teachers, counselors, administrators and students can find and implement the best practices for promoting inclusivity at all academic levels and beyond.

Here at the Institute for Broadening Participation (IBP), we have found that successful initiatives include face-to-face and virtual components that bring together URM students with established URM and other scientists in academia, government and industry. These connections provide URM students with supportive mentoring, networking opportunities, and professional skill development contributing to an overall improved retention rate of URM students majoring in STEM degrees.

Best practices focus on addressing major barriers to retention in STEM for URM’s including isolation, lack of preparation and professional development, and lack of mentoring. One such example is IBP’s highly successful Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success (MS PHD’S®) Professional Development Program. One-on-one mentoring, professional development workshops, networking experiences, and a facilitated virtual community are program activities that center on peer-to-peer community building. MS PHD’S program elements provide teachers, counselors and administrators with model exercises designed to promote effective mentoring and students with specific activities designed to advance professional skills.

The Importance of Community Building, Mentoring, Professional Development and Networking

MS PHD’S®participants at the California Academy of Sciences (December 2012)

Through concentrated activities with mentors and peers, students within MS PHD’S learn to actualize their potential through replicable processes and constructs modeled upon Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Community building activities such as shared lodging and meals, facilitated field trips to scientific museums and points of interest, a multi-cultural food festival, and women and men’s talking circlesserve to establish and sustain relationships of trust, understanding and support between MS PHD’S student participants, mentors, staff and administrators. These activities promote the first three primary tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy — physiological needs, safety needs and love and belonging.

Mentoring, professional development and networking activities further the support of these three tiers and pave the foundation for the final two tiers — esteem and self-actualization. Through a tiered mentoring structure that engages successful URM and non-URM scientists, immediate and near-peers, and caring staff and administrators, student participants strategize to define and set short, mid- and long-term goals, develop oral and written skills, and establish essential and relevant networks. This direct engagement provides students with opportunity and practical application for collaboration within STEM communities.

As students are encouraged and supported in forming networks and engaging in resulting opportunities for internships, research experiences and conference presentations, they find that their confidence grows along with their skills and sense of place within the STEM community. As Strickland stated during his speech, “I was convinced that college wasn’t for me...then my senior year in high school, I was able to do an internship at Delaware State University.” This opportunity along with support from his high school counselors, internship advisors and his personal experiences as a participant in MS PHD’S, convinced Strickland to pursue an undergraduate and graduate degree in STEM.

Strickland also acknowledges the setbacks and using those to persevere —“Don’t doubt yourself. All my rejection letters...I framed them for motivation and encouragement.” With the support of mentors, Strickland forged ahead, using his network to continue to pursue opportunities. This is perhaps one of the most important messages that teachers, counselors and administrators can deliver to URM students — don’t give up — we are behind you!

This message must be backed up by tangible and intangible support through ongoing engagement by teachers, counselors and administrators with students by listening, offering advice, sharing new opportunities, assisting with application processes and connecting students with appropriate role models. Along with examples of elements from IBP’s MS PHD’Sprogram, teachers, counselors, administrators and students can broaden participation and inclusivity in STEM by accessing many other resources through IBP’s website — These resources include searchable databases of funding and research opportunities, webinars, and handouts on best practices for students and faculty and administrators as well as mentoring tips and select peer-reviewed diversity references.

Making the Most of Virtual Tools

Lastly, it is important to acknowledge and address the value of virtual tools and technology to facilitate recruitment and retention of URM students in STEM. Popular with today’s youth, virtual tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and many other social media trends offer readily sustainable options to support reciprocal mentoring, advance professional goals, and maintain continuity of shared networks beyond face-to-face activities. These can and should be utilized for supporting URM students in STEM. Currently, the MS PHD’S program maintains ongoing virtual support and advocacy for program participants through a listserv, social media and VoIP technologies as well as a forum for professional profiles in which participants showcase their research, academic and career accomplishments.

Should your department or school offer the option, consider establishing listservs and virtual forums to facilitate supportive dialogue between URM students and established URM and non-URM scientists. Engage your students in the activity of developing a professional profile for LinkedIn, “friend” them on Facebook and encourage them to “like” scientific organizational pages where they gain exposure to scholarships, research and funding opportunities.

Teachers can also enhance classroom webpages with links to resources that specifically engage URM students in STEM including resources that feature webinars, scholarships, research experiences, mentoring, professional development and networking tools targeted for the recruitment and retention of URM students. Administrators and counselors should consider adding URM mentoring resources and best practices to school webpages.

Promoting the inclusion of URM students in STEM involves a myriad of synergistic activities comprised of virtual and face-to-face components. Best practices should focus on meaningful exercises that include community building, one-on-one mentoring, professional development workshops, networking experiences, and virtual tools as well as facilitating support and access to STEM resources for URM students. Teachers, counselors, and administrators can look to models such as MS PHD’Sas well as other IBP resources( to design and develop their own strategic programs that will help better prepare their URM students for a future in STEM.



Ashanti Johnson, PhD, is the assistant vice provost for faculty recruitment for the University of Texas at Arlington’s Division of Faculty Affairs and the executive director of the Institute for Broadening Participation. As founder and director of the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success (MS PHD’S®) Professional Development Program, Johnson received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). The MS PHD’S®program supports under-represented minority undergraduate, graduate, and post-doc alumni through mentoring and professional development activities within the Earth system science community.Lois Ricciardi serves as the Project Manager for the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success (MS PHD’S®) Professional Development Program. Prior to joining IBP in 2008, Lois worked extensively in human resources in both the public and private sector.
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