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How One University Is Moving to Diversify the STEM Workforce

With minority groups largely underrepresented in STEM fields, the University of Texas at Arlington aims to encourage more interest in subjects such as math and physics among those students.

Photo from UTA website
According to the National Science Board, only one-third of the nation’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce is made up of women, while Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Alaskan Indians together represent less than 25 percent of STEM professionals. Noting the disparities, universities across the U.S. have been working in recent years to increase the number of students in STEM programs.

Among them is the University of Texas at Arlington, which recently announced efforts to expand programming geared toward helping more underrepresented students gain advanced skills for in-demand careers in science and engineering, with particular focus on math and physics. According to the announcement, their efforts come shortly after the National Science Board’s Vision 2030, which called on academic institutions “to increase the number of pathways where individuals can develop advanced skills that lead to jobs in science and engineering.”

“Improving the diversity of the STEM workforce can be viewed as a matter of fairness and equity — in this sense fixing the underrepresentation of some groups relative to others is a moral imperative. At the same time, engaging the best and brightest minds available in the pursuit of scientific and technological progress has obvious economic and societal benefits,” Ben Jones, an associate professor of physics at UTA, wrote in an email to Government Technology. “Ensuring that any student who has the capability to do so can access a STEM career is not only the right thing to do, but one with an obvious benefit to science, society and the nation as a whole.”

While employers and institutions are working to diversify the physics population, Jones noted that it is a white, male-driven field like other areas of STEM. Fewer than 8 percent of physics doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. institutions are held by underrepresented minority students, according to a 2020 report by the American Physical Society.

Earlier this year, Jones launched the Nuclear Research Experiences for Minority Students in Texas internship program to recruit undergraduates interested in physics, with a particular focus on getting underrepresented minority students to assist in nuclear research funded by the Department of Energy. As part of the program, interns from minority-serving institutions in Texas recently spent 10 weeks working with UTA faculty and student collaborators in the Neutrinos and Rare Event Searches research group.

“High-energy physics remains a very white male-dominated area,” Jones said in a university statement. “It’s important that the composition of the physics research field reflects the composition of people in the country. Right now it doesn’t, and that’s primarily because of an uneven distribution of opportunities.”

Jones said in an email that the program, which invited its first cohort of trainees to UTA this summer, allows participants to engage in research at the “cutting edge of neutrino and nuclear physics.”

“By the end of the summer many expressed a newfound interest in pursuing further study in fields including nuclear and particle physics,” he added.

The university is also looking to boost representation in other STEM fields like math, among others. Noting that only 5 percent of underrepresented minority students complete their doctoral degrees in mathematics, Jianzhong Su, professor and chair of mathematics, said in the news release that his department aims to strengthen the nation’s STEM workforce by producing a diverse pool of academic leaders.

To help, Su and other colleagues launched UTA’s Bridge-to-Math-Doctorate program, which prepares students for doctoral programs in math through a National Science Foundation-funded curriculum featuring a customizable learning plan.

To date, the program has helped 94 percent of its students enter graduate programs at research universities, including Harvard, Virginia Tech and UTA, serving as a model for other schools looking to diversify their doctoral programs.

“Despite years of efforts to increase diversity, the numbers have not moved much at the national level,” Su said in a statement. “The challenge is how to develop these DEI initiatives in a scalable way, beyond small-size intern and preparatory programs.”

“We see a lot of underrepresented minority students and students from minority-serving institutions who are quite talented, but for various reasons, haven’t had access to the type of mathematical training that large research institutions offer,” Su added. “Students from institutions with limited research opportunities are those we can serve especially well.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.