HBCUs Take Different Approaches to
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.
UNIVERSITY SYSTEM PARTNERSHIPS
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
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.’”
PARTNERSHIPS THAT SEND STUDENTS, FACULTY IN BOTH DIRECTIONS
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.
HBCU-IVY LEAGUE PARTNERSHIPS THAT START IN HIGH SCHOOL
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 goodcall.com on March 29, 2016.