Network forms to bolster equity in STEM graduate education

September 6, 2018

The initiative brings together USC Rossier and more than two dozen professional and academic organizations

By Ross Brenneman

Photo courtesy of USC Viterbi (Photo/Valentina Suarez)

Research shows that participation by underrepresented groups in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines plummets between undergraduate and graduate studies.

A new project looks to take a comprehensive approach to addressing issues that hinder the participation and success of underrepresented students.

The Inclusive Graduate Education Network, or IGEN, partners USC Rossier with nearly 30 other organizations to address those disparities. The alliance includes professional groups like the American Physical Society and American Chemical Society, as well as higher education institutions like the Rochester Institute of Technology and Rutgers University.

Julie R. Posselt

The project is funded by a $10 million award from the National Science Foundation’s INCLUDES initiative, with $1.5 million directed toward the Pullias Center for Higher Education in the USC Rossier School of Education.

Julie Posselt, an assistant professor of higher education at USC Rossier and a PI on the project, will direct the IGEN Research Hub, facilitate faculty professional development workshops and serve on the alliance management team.

“Being selected as an NSF INCLUDES Alliance is an honor and opportunity,” Posselt said. “We’ve worked hard during the pilot stage to develop a theory and evidence-based strategy for working from the ground up with faculty change agents, as well as from the top down with professional societies and selective PhD programs. The potential for long-term change is enormous.”

Persistent obstacles

Colleges and universities award more than 5,500 PhDs each year in the physical science disciplines, and STEM has long been a cited priority among education leaders and policymakers. Yet, despite some progress, students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, such as Black and Latino students, as well as women, continue to seek out STEM doctoral degrees at a disproportionately low rate compared to those who complete undergraduate STEM degrees, and data show that retention also remains a disproportionate issue.

The IGEN Alliance plans to use collaborative efforts to improve the college recruitment and application processes, holistic admissions, retention and bridge programs, professional development, intervention programs and research.

IGEN’s Research Hub, directed by Posselt, will coordinate top scholars to advance knowledge about equity and inclusion in graduate and postdoctoral training; inform professional societies about effective practices and strategies they can help promote; and help develop sound professional development materials for faculty and other leaders.

The alliance’s ultimate goal is to close the participation gap, and sustain the rate of participation in perpetuity. Leaders of the project expect such results will require a shift in paradigms around admissions, retention and completion practices at graduate-level institutions.

“Around the country, we see STEM faculty who know culture change is needed in graduate education to reduce inequities in the scientific workforce. But they often need guidance, community or incentives.” Posselt said. “IGEN will make it possible for departments, disciplines, universities, national labs and corporations to work together and rethink business as usual—from application and admissions all the way through to support for entering the job market.”

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