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Civil engineering for STEM diversity

Posted by Melissa on April 24, 2011

Some initiatives to increase diversity in STEM fields sound like civil engineering projects with discussions of pipelines, bridges, on-ramps and off-ramps. I occasionally encounter a skeptic who thinks that the infrastructure in the state of science is just fine, and we don’t need any new engineering projects. After all, these skeptics claim, plenty of people seem to arrive at their STEM destinations with the current roadways that exist. I agree that many people manage to make it to their desired destination, but there are others who don’t make it in a timely manner (or never make it all) because of the nature of the current infrastructure. If two individuals live the same distance from the destination Science Major City, but one lives in a town that is connected to Science Major City by a four lane interstate and the other lives in a town where the only way to get to Science Major City is by taking a series of two lane country roads, many of which are unpaved, then even if both individuals begin with the same set of skills and the same type of vehicle, one individual will reach Science Major City with much more ease. Infrastructure has an impact on who gets to Science Major City. Hence, investing in infrastructure improvements helps ensure that everyone who wants to get to Science Major City can, regardless of where their journey begins.

My interest in these infrastructure issues caused a couple of items to catch my eye recently.  The April 2011 issue of the American Journal of Physics has an article about the Fisk-Vanderbuilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program, a successful program that creates pathways to the PhD for underrepresented minorities. The article highlights six key elements that the program provides: 1) “strong relationships with faculty mentors,” 2) “peer mentoring and support,” 3) “research and presentation opportunities,” 4) “focus on integrating intellectual, time management, logistical, emotional, and social skills,” 5) “tools to share tacit knowledge,” and 6) “special attention to navigating critical junctures.” The program carefully monitors the “second derivative of student performance” with the goal of “intervening at inflection points.” While some people view bridge programs primarily as a chance for students to gain skills that are missing or underdeveloped, reading about the Fisk-Vanderbilt program reminded me that a critical part of any bridge program is socialization into the community through relationship building. While an individual can’t be successful without a particular skill set, similarly an individual can’t be successful without feeling a part of, and understanding how to navigate, the community of science.

Another infrastructure issue that caught my attention was Dean Dad’s post a couple of weeks about remedial math and English sequences at the community college level. Based on data from the Community College Research Center, he reports: “The single strongest predictor of student success that’s actually under the college’s control — so I’m ignoring gender and income of student, since we take all comers — is length of sequence. The shorter the sequence, the better they do. The worst thing you can do, from a student success perspective, is to address perceived student deficits by adding more layers of remediation. If anything, you need to prune levels. Each new level provides a new ‘exit point’ — the goal should be to minimize the exit points.” While we often think of adding on-ramps for students interested in majoring in the sciences, I’ve never considered the associated peril of having too many off-ramps.

Like building real-life roads and bridges, efforts to enhance STEM access require careful planning and can carry a significant price tag. Particularly in today’s economic climate, finding the financial resources to build and maintain bridge and pipeline programs for STEM fields is difficult, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

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