Casting a Wider Net: Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences

A post by Anne JeffersonAlong with D.N. Lee, I’ll be convening a session on Casting a wider net: Promoting gender and ethnic diversity in STEM at Science Online 2010. To start discussion going in preparation for the session, DNL is hosting the next edition of the Diversity in Science carnival, with a theme of “STEM Diversity and Broad Impacts I: Highlights of successful, ambitious STEM diversity programs such as REUs, mentoring programs and scholarships for college under-graduates, graduate students, post-doctoral associates and early career scientists and engineers.” The deadline for submissions is today, and the carnival will go up on Friday.
In the United States, we have a diversity problem in the geosciences. Less than 5% of BS degrees in geosciences go to minorities, contrasting with ~15% in science and engineering as a whole (NSF data from 2000). As we move into graduate school the problem remains: 3.3% at the M.S. level and 5% at the PhD level. For the sciences and engineering combined, it’s 10.6% for the MS and 8.2% for the PhD. Contrast this with the demographics of the American population, and you see that the sciences in general, and geosciences in particular, are not doing a good job of attracting students that reflect the diversity of our country and are losing out on the discoveries a more diverse scientific community might be able to produce.
NSF has recognized this near-monoculture in geosciences as a problem, and specifically solicits ideas and programs that might improve the situation through its Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences (OEDG) program. Here’s the gist of the program synopsis:

“The primary goal of the OEDG Program is to increase participation in the geosciences by African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans (American Indians and Alaskan Natives), Native Pacific Islanders (Polynesians or Micronesians), and persons with disabilities. A secondary goal of the program is to increase the perceived relevance of the geosciences among broad and diverse segments of the population. The OEDG Program supports activities that will increase the number of members of underrepresented groups who:
* Are involved in formal pre-college geoscience education programs;
* Pursue bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees in the geosciences;
* Enter geoscience careers; and
* Participate in informal geoscience education programs.”

The program offers three tracks for funding: planning grants (getting our act together to roll out a new program); proof-of-concept projects (one-time and short-term activities); and full-scale projects (5 years of funding and designed to be self-sustained after the end of the grant period).
The array of projects that have been funded by the OEDG program is inspiring.

  • Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland is helping high school students and their teachers connect to the geosciences by giving them hands-on field experiences in Chesapeake Bay in a proof-of-concept OEDG grant.
  • Faculty at North Carolina A&T State University, Penn State University, Fort Valley State University, University of Texas El Paso, and California State University Northridge are developing AfricaArray, an alliance that will run summer workshops for high school teachers, create scholarships and high school outreach activities, conduct a summer field course in Africa to recruit and mentor undergraduate students, and provide opportunities for students to participate in research in Africa, in a full-scale project through OEDG.
  • The Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology is creating Ocean FEST (families exploring science together) to reach out to elementary-school Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and their families by creating an evening program to engage them with ocean-environment issues and demonstrate the value of geoscience careers to the local community, in a proof-of-concept grant.
  • Lake Superior State University in northern Michigan is creating a two-week summer geoscience field experience targeting Native-American high school students, by engaging them in solving geological problems with faculty, taking them to sites of both geological and Native American significance, and linking ways of scientific thinking and ways of knowing from within their own cultures.

The projects listed above are just a sampling of the sort of programs that OEDG funds. My university serves ~25% minority students, but our upper-level geoscience classrooms are significantly whiter. In my third year at Charlotte, I am still trying to develop my sense of how to get my classrooms to be more reflective of the university’s student body and the wider community. How can I cast a wider net?
I am starting to think down the line toward an OEDG proposal aimed at giving urban, minority university students a field geoscience experience and then maybe having them partner with high school students to do geoscience research projects in the local area. I’d be curious to know if any of our readers have experience doing this sort of project or if any of you might be interested in partnering on some future OEDG proposal.

Categories: academic life, by Anne, science education
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Comments (11)

  1. Kim Hannula says:

    I think there’s a workshop at AGU that’s a follow-up to the Cutting Edge workshop on teaching geology in an urban setting. If you’re not going to AGU, maybe look at the list of participants in the original workshop (on the SERC site)?

  2. I hate to sound like the Marxist here, but wouldn’t this all be better if put into the context of socioeconomic status? That is the real problem in diversity – rather than insisting on race or culture, if we try to make science a mix of different classes, we would be be able encompass racial/cultural diversity without leaving out, well, the poor white folk (yes, they do exist, and are typically underrepresented in academia).
    More or less, this means we need to fund poor secondary schools better, no matter what the racial/cultural population of the school might be. Insisting on looking at “diversity” merely in the lens of race/culture is very one-dimensional.

  3. Lab Lemming says:

    No, there are heaps if geologists from poor rural white backgrounds, but fuck-all minority geologists (in the USA) from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
    I reckon they should set up a world-class analytical facility at a HBC, provide training for local support, and make all the rich white geologists go there for analyses.

  4. DNLee says:

    I see your point Erik and it is well-made. SES should be addressed and in doing so one can *assume* that should resolve the race/culture diversity thing….BUT… And I hate to sound defensive….
    In my opinion, such comments are a cop out. – “let’s not really deal ethnic diversity”. My angst is further annoyed with your reference to the poor rural white kids – which I interpret as a latent avoidance to deal with racial diversity in fields (STEM) with documented under-representation.
    I am annoyed because that position minimizes the role and influence of one’s racial/ethnic/cultural identity and how s/he relates to world, other people of the same and different backgrounds, communicates and interacts with others. I’ve heard similar comments most of my adult/professional life (in science) and it burns me up every time. Usually it is made by a person from a privileged group who fails to see the offense in telling someone that his/her interests in making one‚Äôs study/work environment more welcoming to others like them is too narrow or isn’t important enough to focus on ‚Äì while simultaneously offering a slick proposal to increase diversity in a way that may actually maintain the status quo. It‚Äôs backhand comment that stings. Under the veil of fairness and objectivity ‚ÄúLet’s pretend your difference away. By saying you see no color or disability or language accent actually says – “I don’t see you fully for the WHOLE person that you are.” My racial/ethnic/gender (also geographic & SES) identity are part of who I am…and I am quite proud of it all. And I would the chance to see more people like me in professional settings.
    A focus on increasing racial/ethnic/gender diversity isn’t to say there should be a moratorium on (straight) white males in STEM – middle class, working class or any other class. I believe it is critically important for students to see professionals who look, sound, walk, communicate, etc like them. I think it is also important for students from typically privilege groups (e.g. white males) to become accustomed to working in diverse professional settings, making friends, and mentoring students – that look like them and that may not look them. It’s about promoting pluralism which means we may have to work deliberately to beef up representation in the other groups until we reach critical mass; and that’s what I do.

  5. I guess I look at it this way: social engineering is social engineering. If you want to bring in racial/cultural minorities (which, incidentally, I am all for, considering I am a Latino myself), then just do it. Make quotas and bring diverse people in – and don’t try to sugarcoat it by claiming that you can’t ask ask such things or you can’t make admission/job decisions with that information not fully in mind. Right now we have a system were we have to whisper behind a curtain about the racial/cultural/gender/orientation of candidates because if we actually talk about it or ask the candidate about it, that can be considered discrimination if they don’t get the job. If we go to a system where such things are out in the open and you put an ad out saying “we’re hiring Mesoamerican students”, it saves the poor white kids the time from applying and it gets the diversity quotient up.
    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that we don’t need more diversity. I’m just saying that maybe we need to stop looking at diversity so two-dimensionally. People are more than their class, their culture, their race – they’re people. We should be out there trying to hire people whose backgrounds will bring a diversity of experience, not just trying to fill in our jars with each race/culture.

  6. Al says:

    I enjoy the conversation both you and Erik are having. I do wish there were more of these. Interestingly enough, you are both correct. You are simply looking at the elephant from different angles and reflecting what each of you sees. The idea of poor rural white kids (male, female) is true. Our country needs to find, recognize and develop their gifts. The idea of poor black kids, and Hmong kids, and African kids, and Latino kids is also true – although there are different biases that operate relative to allowing each group to engage fully in the educational process. (a) If you are able to move backward to where the kids are younger and more malleable – later primary, early middle school years, (b) if you are able to recognize that population’s readiness to engage in the process of science – let’s say building and racing go-carts or something as palpable and as exciting to their realities, and (c) you are able to engage them in that process…then you can build from there. Start early. Start fun. Then build to more complexed and more involved challenges. For many of the populations you are looking at, this is not 2009. If you look at their life realities and when the children have to take on the responsibilities and behaviors of adulthood, you are looking at closer to late 60s (maybe). I love the conversation. I love what you guys are attempting to do. Best of everything.

  7. DNLee says:

    Thanks Erik and Al. Specific to Al, early conversion (to STEM) is nirvana and will be he focus of the Diversity in Science Carnival in December. If I could travel in a time machine, I’d get them all (the whole rainbow and econmic ladder) in 3rd grade. Right now our K-12 public education is a mess and if you are poor (color or community does not matter) you are screwed. Everything is skewed to the sub-urb/ex-urb kids who have been prepping for Harvard since their moms pre-paid for pre-school when they were fetuses.
    And Erik,I think your point is worth discussion. Opposing views and skepticism is our currency right (or religion? What would David Sloan Wilson say?) Please consider writing it up and submitting it to the Diversity in Science Carnival. You can email it directly to me. I’ll be posting the carnival Friday.

  8. Lab Lemming says:

    Do you want to hire Mesoamerican students or American students of Mesoamerican descent?
    Because Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, and Mexico all produce lots of their own great geologists. Dead White American Male researchers have no problem finding talented Latin-American collaborators for joint studies. If I was chairing a Mesoamerican candidate search committee, I’d seriously think about poaching somebody directly from Mexico City. After all, if you want genuine cultural diversity, a foreigner will give you more than a 2nd or 3rd generation American will.

  9. I can’t tell … have I been zinged?
    I suppose I’m a Mesoamerican by that account.
    I think I just like the word “Mesoamerica”.
    Anyway, I agree with DN Lee and Al on this account: urban schools need help, especially in science. If we really want diversity in education, we need to start from the ground up, and that means spending money to make urban schools more attractive to good teachers. That means getting them funded and making them safer.

  10. Lab Lemming says:

    No Zing intended. I was just trying to point out that since other countries have solved the non-white geologist problem, perhaps we can steal their solutions, instead of inventing new ones.
    Alternatively, we send you off to the cloning vat…

  11. One way to cast a wider net is to go to where the students are.