Diversity in Science

Female and minority students are often missing from the sciences. But at Grinnell, those students are on the rise.
August 26, 2009

Katie Lee, 22, loves surgery -- performing it, that is. Studying biology at Grinnell College, she discovered that the procedure gives her "intrinsic joy."

Yet she views the logical next step, a career as a surgeon, with uncertainty. As a woman, she's been told she lacks the "don't feel, just do" personality that seemingly characterizes the male-dominated field. As an Asian-American, she is considered a minority on campus but not, others have told her, in the sciences.

Lee, who graduated in May, spent four years confronting those obstacles as a member of the Grinnell Science Project, which has encouraged women and members of minority groups to pursue science and engineering since 1992. The Iowa liberal arts college has since seen double-digit leaps in the number of traditionally underrepresented students in those fields, which the project's directors attribute to their outreach programs, revamped curriculums and new laboratories.

An average of 45 women a year earned science degrees from Grinnell during 1990-2, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research. That average jumped to 71 a year during 2006-8, a rate that outpaced the growth in women enrolled overall. The increase means that nearly every year since 2000, the number of female science graduates has matched or surpassed that of their male counterparts.

While minority students who major in science are still relatively few -- there were 25 out of last year's class of 408 -- the number has steadily grown over the years. The average number of those students per year during 2006-8 was double the average per year during 1990-2. That growth slightly outpaced the 44 percent increase of minority students overall.

Starting in the late 1980s, some faculty noticed that women and members of all racial minority groups were strikingly absent from biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, math and related departments. "The problem was that many minority students were interested in careers in the sciences, particularly professional careers ... and they would come in with a lot of enthusiasm to try and major in these fields and then run into all sorts of [academic] difficulties in the first few years," said Mark Schneider, a physics professor and the first director of the Grinnell Science Project. "They ended up changing majors to something outside of the sciences and actually doing fine and graduating from Grinnell."

Several incidents, including sexual jokes made by male researchers in her lab, have caused Lee to question her surgery aspirations. "It's hard to become a female surgeon just because you're in this social environment where it's still male-dominated, it's still a field that is in many ways masculine," she said. "I've thought about that and whether I'd want to go through that. I don't know."

One of the Grinnell Science Project's major components is a pre-orientation week for incoming female or minority students with a demonstrated penchant for science. The campus invites 60 to 90 students to arrive before classes start in August, familiarize themselves with the campus, meet science faculty and attend mock courses. The week is meant to give them a head start on feeling at home, said Jim Swartz, a chemistry professor. "When the rest of the new students arrive on campus, rather than feeling like they are marginal here, [participants in the program] are actually the experts," he said.

Professors have also restructured introductory courses with the intention of making them more accessible generally, which they say has fostered a welcoming environment for women, minority and first-generation students as an effect. For Clark Lindgren, a biology professor and former director of the Grinnell Science Project, that course has been Biology 150. Officially introduced in fall 2000, the semester-long introductory course must be completed by aspiring biology majors before they advance. Students learn by employing research techniques -- from reading scientific literature to designing experiments -- in sessions that blend lecture and lab work. No course can substitute for Biology 150, not even AP Biology.

"For everybody, this is new and it provides a kind of leveling of the experience for all of the students," Lindgren said. "So it's not disenfranchising certain students who have had a certain background and didn't have the same opportunities to be exposed to more traditional biology."

Similarly, Schneider, the physics professor, departs from the traditional format of three one-hour lectures and a three-hour lab session per week. His version of introductory physics consists of three two-hour slots that combine lecture and labwork, with a focus on contemporary themes including quantum mechanics, thermal physics and relativity.

While he noted that it is "difficult to know for sure what is cause and what is effect," Schenider said he has observed a dramatic increase in the number of women and minority students studying physics. In the late 1980s, there would only be one or two women among the department's graduates every year, and a minority student every five years, he said. Now, he said, the graduates are 40 percent women and include a few minority students annually.

Looking across the nation, Grinnell's situation is hardly unique. Women earned 58 percent of bachelor's degrees in 2006, but only 21 percent of physics degrees and 20 percent of engineering degrees, according to the National Science Foundation. In addition, underrepresented minorities -- not including Asians -- earned just 16 percent of all bachelor's degrees in science and engineering in 2004.

Domestic minority students make up a little over 19 percent of Grinnell's student body overall. Daria Slick, director of intercultural affairs, said that while the college has not experienced racial tension, its rural location lacks the cultural diversity of cities such as Chicago. She added, "As a person of color myself, I know from my own experience -- and I believe this happens at whatever institution an individual attends -- of course there's a culture shock, there's just that initial transition period of being out of one's comfort zone."

Coming from Texas, Desi Romero, 19, adjusted to Grinnell by participating in the science orientation program. An aspiring chemistry major who wants to study soil preservation in China, he said he chose the college for its intimate class sizes: "You can have eight to 12 people at a table. That helps a lot in classroom discussion, where it's very engaging, almost like eating at a dinner table and discussing something."

Those lab tables were built during a $60.6 million-renovation of Grinnell's main science center, starting in 1997. The project made the laboratories smaller, added movable tables and chairs and created open lounge spaces -- all changes that Swartz, the director, said were intended to invite a diverse array of students to the sciences. "It's easier to sit down at a table and work in a corridor than having to open a door and work in a room where you feel like you might not belong," he said.

For women and minorities to feel at home in a classroom, they must be engaged in issues they can relate to and use their knowledge to help their communities, said Joan Lorden, a neuroscience professor and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She chairs the campus's Council on University Community, charged with leading diversity efforts and promoting understanding of related issues among faculty, students and staff. In addition, she said, students tend to feel like they don't belong in science if they don't have mentors they can relate to: "They don't see as many women or underrepresented minorities running laboratories. To the extent that role models matter, that's a big issue."

Sandra King, a 2008 graduate of Grinnell who will begin a Ph.D. in chemistry at Yale University this fall, said she would not have double majored in chemistry and math had it not been for faculty support. "Having met a chemistry professor at the GSP barbeque, I felt comfortable making an appointment with him, and he helped me plan a course schedule that would allow me to keep on track for either the chemistry or physics major," she wrote in an e-mail. "I then became enthralled in chemistry, and four years later, I am currently a chemistry graduate student."

As for Lee, the biology student, the future is less clear. She is considering teaching English in China for a year; dreams of surgery hover in the back of her mind. But should she forgo the latter, she said, it doesn't mean that programs such as the Grinnell Science Project have no value for her or students like her. Quite the contrary -- they're more necessary than ever.

"I get upset when I run into people that don't see race as a problem, don't see that there's any point to a program like GSP," she said. "I've met people who are against this, like, 'Everything's equal now, everything's OK.' That frustrates me."


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