Diversity Program Consortium offers new hope for inclusive science training

A recent supplement in BMC Proceedings explores the work of the Diversity Program Consortium through a series of articles focusing on the improvement of STEM education through diversification in the USA. Here, Freeman A. Hrabowski III and Peter H. Henderson tell us more.

The problem of minority underrepresentation in science is not new and yet it remains deeply challenging. Just 8 percent of science and engineering doctorate holders in the United States are underrepresented minorities, compared to 30 percent in the general population.

What gives us hope that we can yet achieve inclusive science is the National Institutes of Health-funded Diversity Program Consortium (DPC) which we learn about in depth in The Diversity Program Consortium: Innovating Educational Practice and Evaluation Along the Biomedical Research Pathways.

This BMC Proceedings supplement dives into the critical work of the DPC and its components: the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Initiative, the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC). These are based on a comprehensive approach to changing institutional culture and practice, combined with rigorous evaluation that supports the success of a stronger, diverse biomedical research workforce.

Biomedical research advances healthcare for all Americans. It is strengthened when we include researchers who bring a broad range of perspectives to the work.

This work is a priority for our nation. When we wrote the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads, our focus on the crossroads was intentional because we have choices to make. Do we want a robust scientific enterprise fueling innovation that drives our future? Do we want the best STEM workforce for that enterprise?  Will we draw on our nation’s talent – from all backgrounds – for the strongest workforce possible?

Biomedical research advances healthcare for all Americans. It is strengthened when we include researchers who bring a broad range of perspectives to the work. Our focus on health disparities ensures advances in healthcare reach every community and address their needs. This work is strengthened when researchers from diverse communities engage in formulating the questions and conducting the research. We achieve this through inclusive science.

A long way to go

Sadly we have never been close to realizing a fully inclusive research workforce. In Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the National Academies recommended we increase the percentage of our 24-year-olds with a first university degree in STEM from 6 to 10 percent. To be inclusive as we achieve this, we would need to triple, quadruple, or quintuple the numbers of underrepresented minorities in STEM.  Just 3.3 percent of Native Americans/Alaska Natives, 2.7 percent of African Americans, and 2.2 percent of Hispanics hold these degrees. This stems from persistent underrepresentation of minorities in science that deepens as we ascend the ladder from primary grades, through college, to research careers capped with R01 research funding.

This supplement of BMC Proceedings describes how BUILD actively supports minority students through innovative training strategies that address academic and psychosocial factors, support persistence, and overcome the negative effects of implicit bias, hostile climates, or isolation. The work is systemic, focusing on curriculum development, undergraduate research, mentoring, and institutional partnerships.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) is one of 10 BUILD grantees. We are using our grant to extend what we learned from our Meyerhoff Scholars Programs for high-achieving minorities to a broader population of undergraduates in the sciences. Nine other BUILD campuses are implementing programs organic to their populations, drawing on exemplary practice and innovating in their curricula, pedagogy, faculty development, and mentoring.

For us, at UMBC, quality is defined by the rigor of the work plus the support that allows students to achieve high standards.

There are many well-prepared students, including minorities, who arrive on our campuses intending to major in STEM or the biomedical sciences. Unfortunately, many departments still define quality in terms of the number of students they can weed out, which removes talent that our nation needs. For us, at UMBC, quality is defined by the rigor of the work plus the support that allows students to achieve high standards.

When people come to our campus they are often surprised to find minorities among the highest achieving students in science. That is our vision at UMBC. For institutions to be successful in fostering inclusive excellence, this must be the vision on all campuses, as well. Too often these initiatives are left to junior faculty without the authority to re-think policies and practices. To the extent that respected researchers become involved and academic administrators take ownership of this initiative, we will see substantive progress in increasing the numbers of successful students.

This supplement also describes the NRMN and the CEC. The NRMN has five regional hubs that recruit skilled mentors and partner them with underrepresented minority mentees who do not have a mentor to guide them. The CEC at UCLA coordinates across grantees and conducts assessments to identify long-term outcomes and scalable, best practice. We believe that evaluation is critical to the DPC’s work as it supports both program development and dissemination.

The importance of change agents who recruit supporters and allies and working tirelessly for success cannot be overstated. The next step is to disseminate what is working to other institutions in a way that inspires academic leaders to become invested and allows campus change agents to readily adapt best practice to their institutional settings.

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