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Empowering Women in STEM through Research and Mentorship in a Multi-Tiered Program

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2021 CoNECD


Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day

Publication Date

January 24, 2021

Start Date

January 24, 2021

End Date

January 28, 2021

Conference Session

CoNECD Session : Day 1 Slot 8 Technical Session 1

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

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Paper Authors


Tiffiny Antionette Butler Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Dr. Butler joined the faculty at WPI after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in biomedical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2016. Dr. Butler received her masters and doctoral degrees in Kinesiology (Athletic Training, Integrative Exercise Physiology) with her research interests focused on skeletal and bone biomechanics. She combines her love for education, exercise science, and her passion for diversity, and inclusion in her current position as a Teaching Professor in BME and the Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at WPI. Dr. Butler fosters a student community at WPI that respects and celebrates diversity in all its dimensions, including but not limited the many intersectional identities of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, and physical ability.

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Ryan Meadows Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Ryan Meadows holds a B.S. in Mathematics and Business from Fitchburg State University and an M.A. in Teaching from Sacred Heart University. She is currently the Associate Director of Pre-collegiate Outreach Programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Meadows works with K-12 S STEM outreach programs during the summer and academic year.

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Katherine C. Chen Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Dr. Katherine C. Chen is the Executive Director of the STEM Education Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Her degrees in Materials Science and Engineering are from Michigan State University and MIT. Her research interests include pre-college engineering education, teacher education, and equity in education.

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Suzanne Sontgerath Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Sontgerath holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an M.Ed. from Worcester State University. She is currently the Director of Pre-collegiate Outreach Programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Sontgerath supervises K-12 STEM outreach programs at WPI including Camp Reach and several other summer and academic year programs for students and parents.

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The Women’s Research and Mentorship Program (WRAMP) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has evolved to empower women at different stages in academia and has built a supportive community of practitioners. While the funding for this program comes from a WPI Women’s Impact Network grant to support women, we have envisioned the program to recruit and support women of color. Through a partnership among the WPI Pre-Collegiate Outreach Programs, STEM Education Center, and Office of MultiCultural Affairs, we have been able to support 53 women in the program over 3 cycles, and expect to engage even more women in the future due to the popularity of the program.

The initial goal was to provide female graduate students opportunities to develop teaching and mentoring skills and to build a pipeline of local high school students to our university as part of an overall recruitment strategy. The first iteration of the program had seven graduate students in six labs and six high school students participating, and many more high school students on a waiting list. This pilot of the program demonstrated the need to have additional support for the graduate student mentors and to have mentors from underrepresented groups and closer in age, who could be more powerful role models to the high school students. Upon the next cycle of WRAMP, the program expanded to introduce undergraduates (as mentees) to work alongside the graduate students to gain laboratory experience and learn more about graduate school, as well as to help the high school students explore their interests and prepare for college (as mentors). 80% of the undergraduates who participated were women of color, and greatly increased the ethnic diversity of the mentors (which is lacking with our graduate student population). Out of these undergraduates that participated in WRAMP, several have gone on to graduate school or are now considering it. Thus, the inclusion of undergraduates in the program has brought many added benefits.

Through this program, the high school students get hands-on experience in a research laboratory and gain exposure to STEM careers, providing an opportunity to an underrepresented group within the area surrounding Worcester (an urban and high-poverty city). This past year, 40% of high school participants were from the local, urban Worcester Public High Schools (with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students), and 30% were women of color. And with the next iteration, our goal was to have increased targeted recruitment to increase both metrics and perhaps be able to have close to 100% of the high school students from Worcester Public School District (which represents 7 different high schools). Currently, in our third iteration of the program, 100% of the high school women participating in our program were from the Worcester Public School system with 50% as young women of color. Undergraduate and graduate mentors also increased in number of diverse women participants at 67% and 10%, respectively.

WRAMP is now a multi-tiered program where each semester, a female graduate student mentors an undergraduate and two high school students on a project related to their research. The multi-tiered research team spend roughly 2-4 hours per week learning laboratory skills and the research process over roughly 8 weeks. Some of the research projects have been on testing biomedical materials, assisting in the building of robots, studying genetics with worms (C. elegans), and the analysis of liquid crystals. The mentees learn authentic lab practices and use specialized research equipment under the guidance of their grad mentor. The research experience for the mentees is where they learn and experience open-ended and large questions that have no quick answers and how “failure” is part of learning and part of the research process.

In addition, the high school women have Saturday sessions where they learn about library skills, giving formal presentations, applying to college, and college life. The program concludes with the high school women presenting a poster of the data that they collected and the skills that they learned through their research project in a public setting with parents and other guests. At the closing, the mentors also share something about their mentees to give a personal touch to the event.

Alongside the research, the graduate and undergraduate WPI women periodically meet as a cohort for mentor training and to discuss topics such as growth mindset, implicit bias, imposter syndrome, and being in an underrepresented group in STEM. These professional development sessions have turned out to be a safe space and platform for the women to share their challenges and experiences, problem solve together, and support one another (even outside of the WRAMP program), and has resulted in a close-knit community of female students within WPI. The mentors have also come up with additional ideas to improve the program and to take on more responsibilities. They requested to develop and run the Saturday workshops for the high school students (rather than having other WPI departments do them) about applying to college, time management, life in college, etc. The mentors exhibited increased confidence and leadership skills by the end of the program.

Through surveys, participant feedback, and program evaluations, we have been able to improve the program with each cycle. Our program outcomes have been that the high school students show increased interest in STEM careers, and reported persistence in doing their research projects. The WPI undergraduate and graduate students report improved mentoring skills and increased confidence in research laboratory skills. The mentors also noted that they found community through WRAMP, and based on their experiences with the program, they would seek out other mentee/mentor opportunities in the future. The multi-tiered approach has been successful in our context, and could be a model for others. The challenges, lessons learned, and strategies to empower women through research and mentorship will be shared.

Butler, T. A., & Meadows, R., & Chen, K. C., & Sontgerath, S. (2021, January), Empowering Women in STEM through Research and Mentorship in a Multi-Tiered Program Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day .

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