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How Small, Interdisciplinary Programs Are Contributing to Diversity and Inclusiveness in STEM University Departments in the US

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Graduate Studies Division Technical Session 5

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

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Paper Authors


Mirit Shamir Kansas State University

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Mirit Shamir is the Academic Services Coordinator for the Rural Resource Resiliency NSF Research Traineeship housed in the Alan Levin Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Kansas State University. She holds an M.S. in Environmental Policy from Michigan Tech where she was an IGERT scholar, and an LL.M from Tel -Aviv University. As the academic services coordinator, she actively recruits diverse prospective graduate students, and manages the day-to-day administrative and program functions of the graduate traineeship in rural resource resiliency for food, energy and water systems.

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Matthew R. Sanderson Kansas State University

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Matthew R. Sanderson is the Randall C. Hill Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work and Professor of Geography and Geospatial Sciences at Kansas State University. Currently, he is working on several projects that examine co-evolving relations between humans and ecosystems.

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Rebecca Cors Wisconsin Center for Education Research

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Rebecca Cors is a researcher and evaluator with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, UW-Madison, who focuses on science and nature learning, which often happens outside of the classroom. She is fascinated with how people learn and develop in ways that enable them to thrive. Rebecca’s career began in environmental education and outreach to support natural resources management through experience at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer. A keen interest in research and evaluation blossomed during her time as an academic editor and researcher at ETH Zurich, which led to her PhD research in Geneva, Switzerland, where she studied the effectiveness of a mobile science learning laboratory. In 2017, she joined the Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative, UW-Madison, where she continues to support education programs through research and evaluation. By drawing on her expertise in logic modelling, systems thinking, and collaborative interpretation of results, she helps managers examine the effectiveness of their programs in ways that are meaningful to them and their stakeholders. She has published and presented research about out-of-school learning for science and nature education and about collaborations to promote natural resources management.

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Melanie Derby Kansas State University

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Dr. Melanie Derby graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a B.S. in 2008, M.S. in 2010, and Ph.D. in 2013. In 2013, she joined Kansas State University where she studies multi-phase flows and heat transfer in the food, energy, and water nexus; she is currently an Associate Professor and holds the Hal and Mary Siegele Professorship in Engineering. Her research has been sponsored by NSF, NASA, ASHRAE, and industry. She is a recipient of a NSF CAREER Award, KSU College of Engineering Outstanding Assistant Professor Award, and ASME International Conference on Nanochannels, Microchannels and Minichannels (ICNMM) Outstanding Early Career Award. She currently directs the KSU NRT which is focused on interdisciplinary FEW research and graduate education.

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The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are characterized by disproportionately lower participation by women and underrepresented minorities, particularly in graduate school. The United States population and workforce are becoming increasingly more diverse, yet underrepresentation in STEM fields persists. Broadening participation in STEM graduate education can both increase diversity in the STEM workforce and productivity of research labs, since research has shown that more diverse research teams are more productive than those who are homogeneous.

This paper examines how an interdisciplinary graduate traineeship approach can stimulate discovery, educational benefits, and workforce development, and also recruit, retain, and support diverse cohorts of STEM graduate students. The National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program (NRT) at the university attracts students from diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds and cultivates a culture of inclusiveness, serving as a model for other graduate programs. A core aim of the NRT is to contribute to diversity and inclusion in graduate school settings.

This paper describes an investigation to better understand how the NRT contributes to diversity and inclusion of STEM graduate education. We studied the composition of NRT cohort groups, with respect to gender and ethnicity, and the views trainee-students have about program inclusiveness. Our methods involved reviewing the NRT program enrollment material and analyzing our annual NRT program trainee responses to a survey that was administered in fall 2019 (N=11) and fall 2020 (N=15). The survey asked trainees about their experiences with the NRT program. Enrollment data show that the first two NRT program cohorts are comprised of 50% women and 50% men, a ratio that aligns with the national population, yet differs from our College of Engineering enrollment (i.e., approximately 75% men and 25% women). The second NRT program cohort is comprised of 50% underrepresented minority. Survey results for cohort two show approximately twice as many trainees identify as white as those who identify as another ethnic group (Asian/Asian American other than SE Asian or Hispanic constitutes 33%). This ethnic composition is more diverse than our university graduate student population and its College of Engineering, which both include fewer than 10% of these minority groups.

Survey findings show that trainees rate the program as very inclusive, which they attributed to how their NRT program experience enables trainees to interact with people (e.g., trainees, guest speakers, project stakeholders) with diverse backgrounds. Trainees’ responses from men focused more on how NRT program leaders designed the program so that it can offer these interaction opportunities, while women emphasized the small size of the NRT cohort group and opportunities to connect with others. The latter is similar to what other studies have found about how undergraduate women, more than men, attribute program inclusiveness to feeling a sense of belonging. Finally, survey findings provide evidence that cognitive diversity, opportunity to work with people who have different styles of problem-solving, is among trainees’ favorite aspects of the program. In addition, we discuss the structure of our NRT and recruitment strategies we have used to advance more diverse participation.

Shamir, M., & Sanderson, M. R., & Cors, R., & Derby, M. (2021, July), How Small, Interdisciplinary Programs Are Contributing to Diversity and Inclusiveness in STEM University Departments in the US Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36521

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