Sarah Simmons, HHMI program lead for Driving Change
It’s no secret that college science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education has a serious diversity problem. Although roughly the same percentage of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other students of color initially select majors in science-related fields as white students, they end up graduating with a STEM bachelor’s degree at half the rate of white and Asian students. The result is an unacceptable underrepresentation of Black and brown people in all types of science-related jobs, from medical researchers and math professors to Silicon Valley engineers and rocket scientists. The data from the 2019 Interagency Working Group on Inclusion in STEM reportexternal link, opens in a new tab show, for example, that only one out of every 10 federal STEM workers is from a racial or ethnic excluded group.
This underperformance of the higher education system restricts the opportunities available to people of color. Equally important, it holds back the march of progress and scientific advancement by depriving the nation of unique talents, perspectives, and skills of people from more diverse backgrounds.
A few programs have successfully tackled this problem. Over the last three-and-a-half decades, the Meyerhoff Scholars Programexternal link, opens in a new tab, pioneered by Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, the recently retired president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has enabled more than 1,400 students to pursue STEM graduate degrees and become leaders in science, technology, engineering, and related fields. The primary purpose of the Meyerhoff Program is to produce scientists and engineers who are committed to diversity.
Another example of success is the Biology Scholars Programexternal link, opens in a new tab at the University of California, Berkeley, directed by John Matsui, which began in 1992 and now has more than 3,500 alumni. According to the program’s website, Biology Scholars Program members enter Berkeley with SATs and high school GPAs significantly lower, on average, than Berkeley biology majors overall. Yet, they graduate with biology degrees and GPAs on par with their peers and are competitively eligible for graduate school and subsequent STEM careers.
More than grit and resilience
These efforts prove that students from underrepresented groups can break through the barriers that society and educational institutions have strewn across their path. Programs such as Meyerhoff and the Biology Scholars Program have been successful in increasing the number of students who make it through the gauntlet.
But what the programs don’t tackle directly is the gauntlet itself – the long-standing barriers that racism has embedded in society and institutions. Like many, we at HHMI want to identify and support sustained efforts to break down these barriers. If we work together, we can make lasting progress.
With this goal in mind, HHMI designed a new program called Driving Change. Instead of a “fix the student” mindset, Driving Change works with universities to create a more inclusive STEM learning environment for all students.
On November 1, 2022, HHMI is making the first grants in this Driving Change initiative, awarding $2.5 million to each of six colleges and universities: Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the Ohio State University, the University at Albany, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, University of Montana, and University of Virginia.
A focus on inclusion
HHMI launched Driving Change in 2019. From 99 research universities that submitted pre-proposals, 38 were selected as finalists, and those 38 formed the “Driving Change Learning Community.” Since then, that group has met every few months, with about 180 university representatives – including faculty chairs, provosts, associate deans, vice chancellors, and professors – participating in each meeting. HHMI also brought in inspirational, expert, and provocative speakers, such as David Hall, president of the University of the Virgin Islands; Tia Brown McNair, vice president at the American Association of Colleges and Universities and lead author of From Equity Talk to Equity Walk; and Emily Miller, deputy vice president for institutional policy at the Association of American Universities, who has done extensive work on the levers of change at institutions.
The self-study data revealed significant disparities. Take introductory science courses, which have historically been designed to narrow the pool of students moving on to higher level classes. In one example course, with an overall passing rate of 91 percent, historically marginalized groups must retake the class at disproportionately high rates –for example, only 75 percent of African American students receive a passing grade. Another institution’s self-study found that not only were Black students more likely to receive a failing grade or withdraw from introductory chemistry (50 percent compared to 20 percent for white students), those that remain were less likely to do well, with only three percent receiving an “A” compared to 16 percent of white students.
A common explanation given for such results is that broadly speaking, students of color aren’t prepared or motivated enough. But this isn’t true. The Learning Community participated in a workshop on how to consider and articulate alternative reasons – for example, that minoritized students aren’t equitably seen, listened to, or represented, while also being given pervasive signals that they really don’t belong.
It is wrong to ask students to be responsible for creating institutional culture change – changing faculty hearts and minds, proving stereotypes wrong – without any work by the institution, and without transparency about why the extra work is required for their success. A much better, more sustainable, and more proactive approach will be for colleges and universities to identify and then dismantle the barriers.
Changing the culture
Solving these problems is difficult and complex. It requires not just changing the “culture of competition” that pervades many STEM courses, but also the overall college or university culture. There must be powerful commitment to equity from top leadership on down, and a conscious plan to make the institutions more inclusive to all people. And there must be ample opportunities for faculty, staff, administrators, and students to come together as a learning community where they can share, reflect, and learn from one another.
The first six Driving Change grants are being awarded to finalist applicants that made strong arguments for their readiness to embark on this change journey with experiments that held the best promise of helping the whole community. Awarding the first six Driving Change grants is just one early step in a much longer journey, one that the Driving Change team hopes all 38 institutions in HHMI’s Learning Community will continue to travel. The expectation is that the lessons learned from the grantees as they implement their programs will feed back into the larger community, helping each one raise the bar for institutional change on their own campuses.
As HHMI program leaders, we’re excited and grateful for the opportunity to work alongside faculty and academic leaders in a collaborative effort toward change. We don’t have all the answers, and we’re continuously learning how to provide the most effective philanthropic support for long-term change in education. We believe that science belongs to all of us.
HHMI is the largest private biomedical research institution in the nation. Our scientists make discoveries that advance human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. We also invest in transforming science education into a creative, inclusive endeavor that reflects the excitement of research. HHMI’s headquarters are located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.