Skip Navigation
search icon Open Search Field


HBCUs Take Different Approaches to STEM Partnerships

March 29, 2016 – Since President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13532, pushing for greater support of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and with special emphasis on strengthening STEM programs, the number of STEM partnerships with HBCUs has grown significantly. Aimed at increasing STEM diversity, where African Americans are underrepresented, these partnerships, though, vary widely across institutions.

Some STEM partnerships focus on collaborations between HBCU and non-HBCU faculty members, while others hope to recruit HBCU undergraduates into graduate-level programs at traditional research universities. There’s also a broader push to focus on African American students before they make it to college, ensuring they enter the nation’s HBCUs and traditional universities alike with the skills they need to succeed in high-demand areas like STEM. And, others argue that both HBCU and non-HBCU faculty and students have something to gain from exchanging learning opportunities across partnering institutions.


Partnerships between faculty members are one way that institutions are opening up opportunities for HBCU students to conduct research at larger universities. One example is between Shaw University and North Carolina State University, both located in Raleigh, North Carolina. The latter is home to one of the region’s top ecology labs run by Dr. Robb Dunn, evolutionary biologist and professor of applied ecology at NCSU. Through a partnership between Dr. Dunn and Dr. Eric Butler, assistant professor of Biology of Shaw University, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Shaw students have the opportunity to study at the Rob Dunn Lab at NCSU. Dr. Butler selects exceptional natural science and math students to spend a summer or semester conducting research at the NCSU ecology lab under the mentorship of Dr. Rob Dunn and NCSU graduate students.

“The success of this collaboration has been demonstrated during student presentations at local conferences and symposiums,” says Odessa P. Hines, director of public relations at Shaw University, like Shaw student Natavia Ray who recently won in her category at the Entomological Society of America’s Southeastern Branch Conference in Raleigh.


On a much larger scale, the University of California system has the UC-HBCU Initiative where faculty can apply to receive funding for programs that engage HBCU students and faculty. The Bruin-In-Genomics (B.I.G.) Summer, an intensive workshop integrating big data and biological concepts, is one of these programs. This year, the program will receive a total of 20 students, eight of which are coming from HBCUs like Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU), Fisk University and Morehouse College, among others.

Alexander Hoffmann, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences (QCB) and one of the program’s coordinators, tells GoodCall, it’s critical for science to have diverse sets of minds looking at a problem; this is how you create opportunities for innovation to occur. What’s more, he says big data is ripping apart how biomedicine operates and changing the way it is done. For students who don’t attend institutions with large research budgets and programs, this translates into fewer opportunities for learning about big data and the way it is changing not only biomedicine and STEM but also the way we think about non-STEM areas like the liberal arts and social sciences.

B.I.G. Summer provides each student a laptop loaded with the software they’ll need to conduct their data project. Participants get to take the laptops with them, with the hopes that they’ll continue using them do big data research analysis when they return to their home institutions, says Hoffmann.

Students must have some experience with programming in order to participate. To ensure students applying to the program have timely access to introductory computer science courses required for participating, Hoffmann has been building relationships with computer science professors at several HBCUs. Nevertheless, meeting this requirement is a challenge across many levels, one being the longstanding underfunding of HBCUs that translates into less resources on a per student basis.

Couple this with the fact that African Americans have disproportionately less access to computer science training prior to entering college, according to the White House’s Computer Science For All initiative. This lack of early exposure can lead students to be deterred by what seems like an insurmountable game of catch-up or even by their professors’ lack of patience and support for students that don’t bring foundational computer science skills to introductory-level courses. What’s more, even when African American coders get the skills they need and are hired, they continue to face challenges in the workplace. Hallie Lomax, a graduate of Howard University, says in a recent Bloomberg article, “When I was at Google, one thing that I heard over and over again was, ‘I learned to code when I was 7.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I didn’t.’”


With the rise in student activism over racism and inequality at universities across the country, and particularly at the Ivy League, David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, recently proposed that the Ivy League could learn valuable lessons on diversity from HBCUs, which increasingly serve not only African Americans but growing shares of other minority and white students. And at the same time, HBCU students stand to gain skills and experiences at the Ivies that will make them more competitive job candidates, researchers and members of our overall society.

In a recent Op-Ed for the Washington Post, Wilson wrote, “Imagine if Brown University partnered with Morgan State University to develop an exchange program allowing students and faculty from each institution to spend a semester on the other’s campus. Such an initiative would generate invaluable cultural experiences on both campuses, while underscoring a commitment to develop the whole student within environments that reflect the shifting demographics of the United States.” His proposal stands apart from other university partnerships in that it proposes both HBCU and Ivy League students have something to learn from a university study exchange involving students and faculty.


Having partnerships between HBCUs and research-focused, mainstream universities is important for building faculty collaborations and opening up opportunities for student study exchange. It’s also important for universities involved in these types of partnerships to prepare their students for the level of rigor they’ll encounter through a study away at an Ivy League school, for example, says Jonathan Farley, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics at Morgan State University.

Farley adds that coming to the university already prepared with foundational math skills is critical to success in any advanced program of study. This is why he has been working to build math programs that target underrepresented groups like minority and female students early on, before they get to college. Some of the programs he’s proposed include “My Brother’s Calculator,” focusing on black urban male youths, and “Girls Equal Math” to teach university-research-level math to girls in high school.

He argues that if we really want to build a cohort of minority and female leaders in math and other STEM areas, then it’s time to go beyond remedial coursework for underrepresented groups. Partnering up with HBCU and Ivy League institutions, Farley’s advanced research programs go far beyond the Russian or Hungarian math Olympiads, he says.

As partnerships with HBCUs continue to grow, the form they take to promote diversity in higher education and increase the number of African Americans in STEM will likely continue to vary. Evaluation of their impact for students and faculty who participate will be important indicators to measure going forward, in addition to considerations of the impact STEM partnerships with HBCUs will have on these institutions and the higher education landscape as a whole.

This article was written by Monica Harvin and appeared on on March 29, 2016.