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Vanderbilt professor offers key factors in recruiting minorities, women to critical science, engineering careers

by Mar. 16, 2010, 9:00 AM

[Download a PDF file of Keivan G. Stassun’s testimony.]

Identification of students with unrealized potential, continuous tracking of individual performance and intensive, one-on-one mentoring are key factors in successfully recruiting underrepresented minorities and women into the critical professions of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

That is one of the messages that Keivan G. Stassun, associate professor of physics and astronomy and co-director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, delivered in testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology on Tuesday, March 16 at a hearing entitled “Broadening Participation in STEM.”

Since it was established in 2004, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program has attracted 35 students, 32 of whom are underrepresented minorities (URMs) and 59 percent of whom are female, and has achieved a retention rate of 92 percent. Last year the program graduated its first Ph.D. student and is on track to award 10 times the U.S. institutional average of minority Ph.D.s in astronomy, nine times the average in materials science, five times the average in physics and twice the average in biology.

“It remains a critical national interest to sustain a vital pipeline of individuals earning doctoral degrees in STEM,” Stassun stated in written testimony. “These are the best and brightest of our national brain trust: the future leaders of our world-class laboratories, the future principal investigators of federally funded R&D initiatives, the future teachers, mentors and role models for subsequent generations of America’s explorers. It matters, therefore, that these future STEM leaders reflect the ‘face of America.'”

Pointing out that graduate STEM programs in the United States have become increasingly effective in training STEM leaders for the rest of the world, with more than half of all STEM doctorates awarded by U.S. universities now going to foreign students, he said, “At the same time, however, large segments of the U.S. population remain grossly underutilized. Over the period of 1999-2006, U.S.-citizen URMs represented on average just 4 percent of all STEM Ph.D.s awarded by U.S. institutions, whereas these groups comprise more than 30 percent of the Ph.D.-age population of the United States. Foreign students earned almost five times as many Ph.D.s in 2006 than did URM citizens of the United States.”

One of reasons for the Bridge program’s success is the participation of the historically black Fisk University, Stassun acknowledged. Minority-serving institutions like Fisk represent large – and largely untapped – pools of talent for increasing minority participation in STEM disciplines. For example, the top 15 producers of African American physics baccalaureates are historically black colleges and universities. Fisk alone is one of the top 10 universities awarding master’s degrees in physics to U.S. citizens of all backgrounds, he pointed out.

One of the key elements of the Bridge Program is identifying students with unrealized potential, Stassun reported. Because of the variable quality of the education that they receive, minority students who can be honed for top-notch Ph.D. level work cannot always be identified by standard measures like grade points and test scores alone. So the program relies heavily on a process of “scouting” for talent: in-depth interviews in the selection process that look for evidence of leadership potential and “grit,” and close monitoring of student skill in the laboratory to directly observe student promise for top-level research – their creativity and inventiveness – which is ultimately what a Ph.D. is all about.

Another key element is continuous monitoring of student performance: “Detect potential problems early and intervene with support quickly and often,” Stassun said.

One of the most important elements, however, is “intensive, ongoing, one-on-one student mentoring.” This is central to the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge model and it is very difficult to scale up because it depends on the commitment of time and energy of faculty members who already shoulder extensive demands on their time in the form of teaching, mentoring other students, conduct top-notch research, manage world-class laboratories and perform their administrative duties.

“In truth, we expect that this will remain a fundamental challenge for replicating the program,” Stassun said. “The faculty leaders in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge program view diversity in STEM as a priority for reasons that are at once strategic, moral, competitive, even patriotic – such passion and deep commitment are difficult to blueprint, export, or mass produce.”

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