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Can Local Networks of Experts Help Boost Diversity in Science and Engineering?

By Barton Reppert

According to a recent interim report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), local networks of experts can show communities how to bring more women and minorities to careers in science and engineering.

The AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity was tasked with providing a preliminary evaluation of “Extension Services” projects funded by the National Science Foundation for its Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program. The program's overarching goal is to improve the capacity of the nation's educational systems to attract and graduate more diverse students in science and engineering, especially females, in response to a national talent crisis. The Extension Services projects are networks designed to deliver innovations in education directly to the field.

The NSF Extension Services projects are modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Extension Services, which have have been highly successful at sharing new ideas and tools with the nation's farmers.

Similarly, NSF's Extension Services projects train a cadre of local experts, trainers, consultants and lead educators to deliver data-driven best practices for attracting and retaining more women in science and engineering. In 2005-2009, NSF provided $2.5 million each to nine five-year projects, which targeted educators in after-school programs, science museums and community colleges, as well as engineering and computer science educators.

The authors of the AAAS interim report interviewed the leaders of the nine ongoing projects to gauge progress, successes, frustrations, and most importantly, lessons learned.

Jolene Jesse, program director in the NSF’s Research on Gender in Science and Engineering Programs, observed that “since this funding track was experimental, we really had little idea how it would work exactly — what types of projects would be funded, what communities would be served, or how extension services projects would be structured.”

Jesse said the AAAS report “will eventually inform evaluation efforts to show the actual impact of the projects within the overall Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program portfolio.”

One example of a promising NSF-funded Extension Services project is the CalWomenTech project, which is working closely with eight community colleges in California to help recruit and retain female students at the state's 50 community colleges that are designated technology centers. CalWomenTech employs a top-down approach, working with not only STEM instructors, but also key leaders, staff and administrators of the colleges to ensure that best practices are accepted and institutionalized. Specifically, CalWomenTech is helping engineering departments introduce a new spatial skills course that has proven effective at increasing female enrollment, and increasing retention among both women and men.

“Students entering engineering do not all have equally strong spatial skills,” said Ruta Sevo, an independent consultant working at the AAAS Capacity Center and one of the authors of the AAAS report. Students lacking strong spatial skills can become discouraged and may have difficulty getting through the rest of the engineering curriculum. However, CalWomenTech's project has shown that a short course in spatial skills, developed by one of their client community colleges, can help to even the playing field and keep those students on track for a STEM career. Sharing that successful course with other institutions could yield across-the-board retention improvements at engineering programs in California.

It is interesting to note that among the advisors to the CalWomenTech project are  representatives from industry, who are not so much concerned with equity issues as they are about the availability of a skilled technical workforce in California. In this case, CalWomenTech's project has demonstrated that if the right strategies and practices are adopted, retention among both women and men can be increased, which should help to build a more robust workforce in the coming years.

Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, commented about the NSF-funded Extension Services effort: "Several of the programs provide resources that improve the impact of our outreach programs. For example, thanks to NCWIT's research, we have quality information and resources for supporting outreach. Another example is the National Girls Collaborative Project, which has been the catalyst for partnerships between our sections and local girl-serving organizations. Thanks to the Extension Service programs, we have access to quality materials that we could not obtain elsewhere."

Henry J. Lindborg, chair of IEEE-USA's Career and Workforce Policy Committee (CWPC), commented: “[NSF's Extension Services projects] are especially important in understanding how communities of practice and ‘networks’ can be leveraged. This seems obvious to us as individuals, but there are significant challenges in addressing groups and organizations. The test of AAAS’s findings will be how lessons learned can be applied in new arenas and how they relate to the structure of values / motivation of future engineers.”

Lindborg added that the CWPC “considers educational issues at the level of policy. We are deeply concerned about how IEEE’s policies can contribute to / influence ‘real life’ improvement. We hope the findings presented here can help us better interpret how policy may influence thinking / action in networks. Overall, this is a valuable resource for improving cycles of learning in and among organizations.”

The AAAS report summarized various contributions of the Extension Services, including:

  • “Improved national capacity to address the low participation of women in science and engineering: The Extension Services are producing robust models for ways to serve particular communities effectively. They have customized products, customized workshops, staffing experience and evaluation methods.”

  • “Networks of committed educators and leaders within particular sectors of our educational systems: With one exception, all the Extension Services are creating networks that span many states. They are working within a five-year timeframe, and most are in the middle of the funded period. It is a significant accomplishment to create networks so fast.”

  • “Methods for widespread distributed training with the aim of commitment to follow-up action.”

  • “A cadre of leaders collaborating at a national level and bringing along new leaders: There are scores of people who have been trained in research and practice to increase the numbers of women in science and engineering. They are action-oriented, with experience in both persuading others to change, and in planning to implement particular strategies and programs.”

  • “An increased capacity to assess and evaluate activities, courses and programs for effectiveness in recruiting female students: To show results, nationally and locally, the Extension Services grantees are promoting the collection of baseline data. They are promoting data-driven decision-making, using data to identify where to invest to change the participation of female students.”

Under the Extension Services program, the nine NSF grantees are working with 35 undergraduate computer science departments, 30 engineering colleges, 10 science museums, 9 state departments of education, 14 after-school youth-serving organizations, 6 engineering education association, 8 community colleges in California, 10 counties in Appalachia, and 1,500 girl-serving after-school programs.

Specifically, the grantee organizations are:

  1. Engineering Equity Extension Service (EEES) – Educators from middle school through the college sophomore level, inside and outside the classroom, providing assistance with engineering curricula.

  2. National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) – Faculty in undergraduate computer science.

  3. California Women Tech (CalWomenTech) – Educators providing technology education in community colleges.

  4. Great Science for Girls (GSG) – Educators in after-school youth programs, especially serving low and moderate-income urban children.

  5. National Girls Collaborative Projects (NGCP) – Educators providing out-of-school girl-serving programs.

  6. STEM Equity Pipeline – Educators in high school and community colleges providing STEM curricula, through state-based offices.

  7. Appalachian Information Technology Extension Services (AITES) – Educators in information technology in middle and high schools.

  8. ENGAGE – Faculty in engineering colleges improving instruction and mentoring to retain undergraduate women.

  9. Girls RISE (Raising Interest in Science and Engineering) Museum Network – Educators in science museums and centers.



Barton Reppert is an independent science and technology writer, mainly focusing on Washington coverage of S&T policy issues and developments. He previously worked for 18 years as a reporter and editor with The Associated Press in Washington, New York and Moscow.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2010 IEEE

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