Grant powers efforts to increase Latino representation in STEM degrees and careers

Diversity brings new perspectives to problems that can boost innovation. For example, research shows that companies with greater racial and ethnic diversity perform better financially. Yet in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields — fields with the potential to solve some of our world’s biggest challenges — many groups are not well represented.

Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded $9.975 million to an Arizona State University-led network to increase Latino representation in STEM degrees and careers.

The grant is part of the NSF INCLUDES program, which aims to enhance preparation, increase participation and ensure the inclusion of individuals from historically underrepresented groups in STEM education.

The grant was awarded to the Accelerate Latinx Representation in STEM Education (ALRISE) Alliance, a collaborative group of institutions and organizations that will share resources, data, research and best practices, led by ASU’s Center for Broadening Participation in STEM. The center, formerly known as the Science Foundation Arizona Center for STEM, works to increase participation of marginalized individuals in STEM education.

Below, center Director Caroline VanIngen-Dunn and School of Life Sciences Professor Shelley Haydel — who leads undergraduate research experiences for the alliance — discuss how the ALRISE program will affect Latino students, community colleges and universities, and the future of the STEM workforce in the U.S.

Question: Why is this award important?

Haydel: Nationally, we know that Latinx, Black and Native American people remain underrepresented in STEM. We must continue to eliminate these gaps and strive for equitable results in student retention, degree completion and workforce engagement. We know that undergraduate research experiences increase awareness of STEM careers, STEM self-confidence, STEM major retention and STEM graduation for underrepresented persons, many of whom are the first generation to go to college and have not seen other community members in these careers.

Q: What will it mean to be a part of these new NSF INCLUDES Alliances?

Haydel: With this new ALRISE Alliance grant, we have a unique opportunity to participate in the NSF INCLUDES National Network, a community of over 3,000 members, collectively working to improve diversity and inclusion in STEM. One area that I am most excited about is our focus on asset-based thinking. So much of education research focuses on negative outcomes, how poorly students are doing "this" and how poorly faculty are doing "that." I have found that our instructional faculty want to improve and are intrinsically motivated to engage in these efforts. It’s our job to involve them in these scholarly activities as we work to instill intentionality and focus on asset-oriented educator training, coaching and capacity-building.

Q: What is the goal of the ALRISE program?

VanIngen-Dunn: It fulfills a mission that National Science Foundation has to broaden participation in STEM. A significant feature of this ALRISE Alliance and the other alliances that NSF is funding is the goal to transform systems.  

This alliance that we've put together will effect systemic change in areas specific to the Latinx community of students. It is about supporting students to pursue their STEM degrees and careers, and supporting the faculty to be more intentional about making sure their students are successful in meeting their goals. By doing that, you end up lifting the entire community of students. It's not going to be just Hispanic students who benefit.

Q: What is ASU’s role?

VanIngen-Dunn: We're what we call the backbone organization of the ALRISE Alliance, which means that we will support each member organization to meet their individual goals, and by doing so, achieve the collective goals of the overall alliance. We will also coordinate the efforts of the alliance subgroups, of which there are five: the Hispanic-Serving Institute, Identity and Intentionality subgroup will develop the curriculum for cultural responsiveness in experiential learning and deliver it through faculty professional development; the Undergraduate Research Experiences subgroup will form a network of undergraduate research programs that already exist and are successfully being used; the Work-based Experiences subgroup benefits from technology councils across the country and their industry members to create work-based experiences for students; and the Research subgroup will collect data from alliance participants to address its research questions and support the evaluation effort, which is significant. The Advocacy and Policy subgroup is led by Excelencia in Education, a Washington, D.C.-based data-driven advocacy organization for Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

Haydel: In 2019, I launched the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research: Improving Access, Community and Teamwork (SOLUR ImpACT) Initiative that provided stipends for underrepresented undergraduate student researchers. All SOLUR ImpACT scholars graduated with their STEM degrees, with some going on to graduate degree programs, medical school or health care positions. I’m hoping that we can leverage the NSF INCLUDES ALRISE Alliance and National Network to scale these positive outcomes and ensure success for thousands of Latinx students. Our national STEM workforce and global STEM competitiveness depend on it.

Q: How will you address Latino education and representation in STEM?

VanIngen-Dunn: There are five systems that we aim to change. One is that there are campus environments that are not intentionally culturally responsive to Latinx STEM students. Another is that STEM educators often have a deficit mindset, which devalues Latinx students’ strengths, resiliency and assets. Focusing on the faculty members’ mindsets really places the work of change on institutions and educators instead, creating an environment that fosters reproducible success.

The third system we have to change is the leaky pipeline, where rates for Latinx retention and completion in STEM programs are significantly lower than the enrollment rates. Many want to go into STEM, and then they get into programs and environments with so many barriers that they end up dropping out.

For example, we know that undergraduate research experiences (UREs) are difficult for community college students to attain. We want to give them a leg up so that when they transfer to a university, they're as prepared as their university peers to participate in UREs. We plan to offer them what we call classroom-based undergraduate research experiences, where an instructor creates a research project that the entire classroom can be a part of. Then the research becomes part of the curriculum, like a science class, as opposed to having to do research as an extracurricular.

A fourth focus is that Hispanics are underrepresented in STEM jobs. The percent of people in STEM careers that are Hispanic is very low compared to the overall set of jobs. While providing research experiences will help to address this, we are also going to provide work-based experiences. We will connect employers with faculty to create industry-relevant classroom projects that they know will develop the skills they will look for in future employees, and we will work with companies who can offer internships for these students.

Finally, research studies on innovative pipelines for underrepresented students are limited, so we think the alliance provides a huge opportunity and a unique case to make in doing research to inform these knowledge gaps.

Q: What makes the center well-equipped to address this area of need?

VanIngen-Dunn: It's probably been 10 years that our center has explored the intersectionality of Latinx students, the Hispanic population growing here in Arizona, STEM education and community colleges. This was an easy proposal for us to do, because it builds on all the programs and research that we have carried out to date.

I also think that our center is primed to be the backbone organization because of ASU’s mission. Success is measured not by whom we exclude but rather by whom we include and how they succeed. I feel that there's a really great opportunity for us to showcase what ASU’s already doing quite well. We have the resources and experience to lead, assist and be a role model for a lot of these other institutions.

Q: What are some outcomes that you hope to see from the ALRISE program?

VanIngen-Dunn: Over the next five years, we will see students complete a minimum of about 1,500 experiential learning opportunities. The goal is to get a better understanding of participating students’ experiences, improve Latinx STEM student equity and increase Latinx student participation in the STEM workforce. We will document the common challenges and synergies within and across the alliance, so we can understand the factors leading to student success.

All these students who have participated in experiential learning will answer a survey to find out how it has impacted what we call their STEM identity, feeling good about being there. The hardest part will be to find out where they go after graduation. Hopefully, the relationships that we build with industry will give us a way to track students’ hiring.

We will also give participating faculty a survey to learn how the professional development influenced the use of evidence-based practices for experiential learning. Faculty teams will receive training that shows them how to take what they’ve learned in professional development and share that with their colleagues within the institution.

At the institutional program level, we will collect and aggregate data across all colleges involved to see the trends related to the five system areas we aim to change with ALRISE. There is a challenge in showing systemic change in just a five-year grant. Ideally, we hope to show trends that are promising so that we can continue to do this work beyond the five years. We hope to be able to achieve sustainability and scale through the research that we're doing, by contributing new knowledge and bringing in other colleges to participate in the alliance.

The ALRISE Alliance is launching with a member audience comprising 25 primarily two-year Hispanic Serving Institutions, organized into four regional hubs led by two-year HSI Hub Coordinators: The Western Hub with nine California colleges is led by Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California; the Southwestern Hub with six Arizona and Illinois colleges is led by Phoenix College in Arizona; the South Central Hub with nine New Mexico and Texas colleges is led by Palo Alto College in San Antonio; and the Eastern Hub is led by Miami Dade College in Florida, where they are beginning to recruit interested partners from Puerto Rico, Florida and New York.

Mikala Kass
mkass@asu.edu