Davidson's academic dean, Wendy Raymond, has been appointed chair of a National Science Foundation (NSF) committee charged with addressing an alarming national situation – the low percentages of individuals from underrepresented minority groups, women and persons with disabilities working in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
The Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE) that she will head for the next three years issues a biennial report to Congress on NSF's and the nation's progress toward its goals. The last such report sounded alarm bells concerning the consequences of the lack of diversity of people studying and working in STEM fields.
It said, "In sum, the nature of the economy has changed and is changing, and so have the demographics of our nation. A democratic society in which large and rapidly growing population subgroups are unable to participate and contribute to scientific and technological advances faces a grave economic, intellectual and scientific disadvantage in an increasingly globalized competition for talent and innovation. Corrective and effective action must be taken now."
The CEOSE was established by Congress in 1980 to advise the NSF on policies and programs for increasing the number of underrepresented individuals, women and disabled people in the STEM fields. Raymond served as a member of the committee for one three-year term before beginning her three-year term as chair in February.
The 15-member committee meets three times per year-twice in person in Washington, and once via webcast. Members are selected based in large part on their commitment to diversity in the sciences, and Raymond has demonstrated that throughout her academic career.
During her 19 years at Williams College, she was appointed as its first associate dean for institutional diversity and directed the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Science Education Program at Williams, leading collective efforts that greatly expanded science research opportunities for students from underrepresented groups.
From 2005-2008 she co-directed four national symposia on diversity in the sciences at Harvard University, the University of Washington, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and HHMI, and consulted on efforts to build inclusive science programs at Wesleyan University, Bates College, Hope College and Skidmore College. As chair of the Committee on Diversity and Community, she led efforts that doubled the Williams College Bolin Fellows pre-doctoral program for scholars from groups underrepresented in the social sciences and humanities.
Her efforts to insure success for underrepresented minority students included working to retain pre-tenure faculty of color. These efforts included mentoring these faculty members to create individual success plans, educating department chairs about inclusive hiring practices, and facilitating a grass roots ad hoc faculty and staff organization that made recommendations to the president and senior staff.
She also helped create facilitated study groups for introductory biology students that took advantage of the power of students to educate each other. "Their efforts are stronger and better when trying to learn together," Raymond said.
For her many efforts, members of the Williams College Multicultural Center in 2007 named her its Faculty Member of the Year, and in 2009 presented her with its Student Choice Award for "unmatched service, support and dedication..."
Raymond hailed Davidson for its commitment to inclusivity in STEM fields. She pointed out that Assistant Professor of Biology Mark Barsoum currently directs two programs at Davidson aimed specifically at helping underrepresented students succeed in STEM.
"Strategies for Success" employs junior and senior minority students to mentor first-year and sophomore students in a variety of activities. The mentors and mentees meet every Thursday evening, sometimes with guest speakers, to address issues such as time management, effective writing and speaking, creating a resume and finding summer opportunities. The program, currently funded by the Jesse Ball DuPont Fund, accepts up to 16 first year students per year, and has been in place for almost a decade at Davidson.
Barsoum said, "The number one thing that helps underrepresented students succeed in STEM studies is instilling a sense of belonging to a supportive community of peers and adult mentors."
Community building in STEM work also is at the heart of Davidson's RISE program (Research In Science Experience). RISE offers a month-long scientific research experience on campus to a dozen students during the summer following their first year at Davidson. "Persistence in STEM is positively affected by early research opportunities," Barsoum emphasized. "We intentionally involve ‘raw' students in a common research program, and that gives them the experience and credibility they need for acceptance in more extensive research projects in venues like the Davidson Research Initiative or R-1 schools."
Working with Barsoum and a teaching assistant, the RISE students conduct experiments together that in the past have led to production of up to three research posters.
A third initiative will begin in fall 2015, when Davidson enrolls its first class of POSSE students. That national program brings together a group of 10 students from the same metropolitan area to enroll in the same college to study STEM fields. The approach has shown success because their common background provides students a common culture, supported on campus by a mentorship from the same faculty member.
Raymond commented, "If we want to succeed in scientific discovery in this country, we need to include people who have been excluded. What we do well for students who are excluded, we do well for everyone."
She said NSF has made limited progress in meeting its goals, despite spending $911 million in FY 12 on efforts to broaden participation in STEM fields. She said women are now fairly represented in biology, but are still underrepresented in computer science, math, physics and engineering. Progress has been minimally successful for other underrepresented groups, she said.
She said part of the answer is overcoming inherent conservatism in science education. "Scientists tend to teach the way they were taught. But that only allows students to continue who thrive from the beginning. We need to focus on teaching everyone. Rather than eliminating students who begin at a stutter step, we need to try to keep them going. We have to focus on teaching practices in science and math courses so that students can overcome a rocky start and succeed down the road."
Raymond said her leadership of CEOSE will increase awareness of Davidson and its efforts to boost underrepresented students in STEM fields. "It will show we're invested in sciences and in inclusion," she said. "The long history of dispersed efforts hasn't led to significant change. We think it's because there haven't been enough focused expenditures on inclusion, and we want to make that the primary focus of the current NSF initiative."