When an African-American man became head of the the department for Kelly Mack's degree program at University of Maryland--Eastern Shore, his presence had a profound effect on her.
"It was like the second coming of Christ," says Mack, an African-American woman who is now the vice president for undergraduate STEM education at the Association for American Colleges and Universities. She is also the association's executive director for Project Kaleidoscope, which assists faculty working in science, technology, engineering or math and helps them support students in STEM.
Mack, who majored in biology, says when underrepresented minorities and women see people who resemble them teaching science, technology, engineering or math, the experience can be encouraging. The association's new initiative aims to increase the number of women and underrepresented minority students who are supported by faculty members that make them feel empowered.
[ Prepare for college classes as a STEM major.]
In June, the Association of American Colleges and Universities announced 20 schools were selected to participate in Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM, also known as TIDES. The new initiative aims to help faculty learn how to better engage women and underrepresented minorities, such as African-Americans or Hispanics, in STEM, as well as create curriculums that are more inclusive for these students. The program's primary focus is to foster change for students interested in computer science.
"We had an interest in computer science because the data was saying that the numbers of women in computer science were declining. Significantly," Mack says. She expects the initiative to affect nearly 100,000 students.
Fourteen schools, including Howard University in the District of Columbia and University of Dayton in Ohio, will receive up to $300,000 for work completed over the next three years that's in line with the initiative. These institutions and other schools in the initiative will receive guidance on how faculty can create atmospheres for supporting underrepresented minorities in STEM.
Dozens of colleges across the U.S. have programs that help women and underrepresented minorities succeed in computer science and other STEM fields, which are often necessary for students to do well, experts say.
[Consider Hispanic-serving institutions for an academic and cultural experience.]
If students struggle in class and have few peers and faculty that look like them, it's easy for them to think, "maybe I'm not supposed to be here, either," says Penny Rheingans, director for the Center for Women in Technology at the University of Maryland--Baltimore County.
Prospective college students who are women or underrepresented minorities can determine if a school can help them in their STEM endeavors by finding out what resources colleges offer these kinds of students.
The Center for Women in Technology at UMBC provides mentoring services, seminars that discuss topics such as networking and time management and a number of other resources, Rheingans says. A living and learning residence community provided through the program caters to women and men in STEM, but the former group dominates.
"Eighty-five percent of students who live on our floor are women," she says.
Rheingan encourages prospective students to keep an eye out for school environments that have structures in place that support women. "You're looking for a community," she says. Visiting the college and talking to current students is one way to find out about the community, she says.
At the University of California--Berkeley, women in computer science can find a sense of community through groups such as the Association of Women in EECS, the electrical engineering and computer sciences department. Freshmen can also participate in a program called CS KickStart.
"It's a one-week free summer program for incoming freshman girls who are interested in CS," says Sheila Humphreys, director of diversity, emeritus, in the EECS department at UC -- Berkeley.
Aspiring computer science majors who are women or underrepresented minorities should ask about the kind of curriculum a school is offering to help determine if the learning environment fits their needs, she says.
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They can ask, "Is the lower division curriculum meant to bring me in or is it, you know, a weed out?" she says. UC--Berkeley, for example, has a class called "The Beauty and Joy of Computing," which focuses on how computing has changed the world and other topics that may draw students to the field. "It's meant to be an attractor course," Humphreys says.
Prospective students can also ask, Humphreys says, "How many women are on the faculty?" and "What's the percentage of women in the major?" to get a feel for the campus.
Maceo Cofield, who raises money and recruits students for the minority engineering program at the University of Dayton, encourages students who want to be engineers -- another job title typically not carried by women or underrepresented minorities -- to ask similar questions as they learn about different schools.
"You can ask for retention and graduation rates for minorities," he says. "You need to find out if they have a minority engineering program. And, do they have a women in engineering program."
[Track the growth of engineering degrees with the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index.]
Mack hopes that in three years the Association of American Colleges and Universities' new STEM initiative will have a lasting effect on women and underrepresented minorities and the faculty who teach them. Professors serve as role models and help students identify with STEM careers, she says. Women and underrepresented minorities who teach in this field can draw a range of students to STEM.
"You can never expect to diversify your student population if you don't diversify your faculty," she says.
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