The STEM Fields

Building a Diverse STEM Workforce

Colleges must put the right diversity practices in place to encourage students to pursue important fields like STEM and the biomedical sciences, write Jennifer C. Danek and Marc Nivet.

November 22, 2016

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case Fisher vs. the University of Texas in July, university admissions officers cheered the affirmation of including race and ethnicity as admissions criteria when narrowly tailored to the institution’s mission. Despite the positive decision for affirmative action, however, university leaders are facing another challenge: making sure they have the right diversity practices in place to support the students they admit. Colleges and universities still have plenty of work to do to encourage students to pursue high-needs fields, like STEM and the biomedical sciences, where diversity is urgently needed.

In addition, universities continue to struggle with faculty diversity, which studies have shown is important not just for excellence in teaching and research but also for the overall campus climate. All the more reason, then, for us to redouble our efforts in researching and sharing effective practices for improving campus diversity -- and identifying ineffective practices that we should stop.

We’ve got a great base to start from. Take the many initiatives designed to ensure the success of underrepresented students -- programs designed precisely to ensure that we don’t lose them on their way to graduate school and the biomedical research work force. These efforts develop student talent along the educational and career continuum in biomedical and STEM fields, and ensure student persistence and success. Most important, some of these programs have developed successful models and gathered evaluative research to understand their success.

For example, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County has been widely recognized for its successful development of many underrepresented students in the sciences. An evaluation of the program found that the key levers of success were financial support, identity formation as a member of the community of Meyerhoff Scholars, summer research activities and professional network development.

Another example is the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, which aims to address the barriers facing underrepresented students in matriculating to doctoral programs. The program has produced a number of high-profile graduates, including Fabienne Bastien, the first African-American woman to be published in Nature and the first African-American recipient of the NASA Hubble Fellowship. Half of the program’s Ph.D. graduates are female, and 83 percent are minority-community individuals.

What would yet more research on these and other programs tell us about how to support the success of all students? We need more empirical evidence to close gaps in the existing research. We also need to bring exemplary practices to scale more quickly at many more institutions. For example, based on gaps in existing research we need to:

  • Identify effective interventions that universities can implement to reduce stereotype threat, a phenomenon that occurs when members of a disadvantaged group perform poorly when made aware of negative stereotypes about their group;
  • Learn more about how underrepresented students in STEM are accessing high-impact practices, such as internships and undergraduate research, and develop strategies for increasing participation; and
  • Identify effective teaching and learning methods that will boost underrepresented undergraduate student performance in required gateway courses.

These three areas, ripe for action, also demonstrate the gaps in the evidence. For example, high-impact practices are supported by a robust body of research, but less is known about how well underrepresented students are accessing these experiences. This is because most high-impact practices occur beyond the classroom, and it is difficult to track students’ participation and tie their experiences to academic outcomes.

In other cases, different interventions have been tested at the institutional level but have not been evaluated across institutions or in different contexts, such as adapting undergraduate interventions for graduate students. It’s a complex problem, and the research needs to get at that complexity.

Working together, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, its Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities, and the Association of American Medical Colleges have gathered the existing evidence in a recent report that also identifies what’s missing and where we need to go next.

To address these gaps in research, we will need more partners in government, industry, philanthropy and academe to take action -- testing the available models, researching new options, reporting on their results and revising approaches based on the evidence in hand.

Improving evidence for pilot interventions will help leaders build a case for adoption of those shown to be effective at many institutions. Learning more about potential barriers to access will help university leaders improve pathways into these experiences and track student outcomes more effectively.

And at a more basic level, probing more deeply into what works and what doesn’t in our efforts to support diversity will help us with a much more fundamental problem: we’ll get a clearer picture of the “systemic unfairness” that our blind spots prevent us from seeing, as Lisa Burrell pointed out in her Harvard Business Review article “We Just Can’t Handle Diversity.” More precise research will help us avoid such phenomena as hindsight bias, which, as Burrell describes, “causes us to believe that random events are predictable and to manufacture explanations for the inevitability of our achievements.”

In its decision in the Fisher case, the Supreme Court justices called on universities to “engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection” about how diversity is achieved. We go one step farther: higher education institutions and their partners need to research as well as reflect, demonstrate as well as deliberate and put a fine point on existing findings to close the gaps in the research. Only then can we counter the challenges to our efforts to diversify the biomedical research work force and ensure that we’re doing everything we can to support the success of all students.


Jennifer C. Danek is the senior director for Urban Universities for HEALTH, a collaborative effort of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities/Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Marc Nivet is the former chief diversity officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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